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M-G hears opposition to reconfiguration

by Tim Tedeschi - ttedeschi@chronicle-tribune.com

Madison-Grant school board members will vote on the proposed reconfiguration of elementary buildings at their next meeting Sept. 23.

Board President Mary Jo Brunt proposed setting the next meeting as the voting date after a lengthy discussion on the topic at the board’s regular meeting Monday.

The proposed reconfiguration would divide Park and Summitville elementary schools by grade level.

One option would be to split the schools by having pre-kindergarten to second grade in one building, with third through sixth grades in the other building. The second option would divide pre-kindergarten through third grade into one building and fourth through sixth in the other.

Both schools currently operate as pre-kindergarten to sixth grade buildings with students’ residences determining which school they attend.

Superintendent Scott Deetz began the discussion explaining the reasoning and potential benefits for reconfiguration. He noted lower enrollment has led to single classrooms at certain grade levels at Summitville with enlarged class sizes.

Deetz said academic benefits would include continuity in class sizes and all staff for each grade collaborating in one building. Students would also be together from kindergarten rather than being consolidated at the junior high level as they are currently.

The corporation foresees adding up to a full time and part time bus driver along with routes to accommodate the new elementary structure, which is estimated to add around 250 extra miles a day of school bus mileage, Deetz said.

Estimated fuel increases would amount to approximately $9,500, he said, while adding the additional bus drivers could cost up to an estimated $47,312 in salary and benefits.

Deetz said rural bus routes would remain largely the same, while the town routes in Fairmount and Summitville would be altered more dramatically. Regardless of which school each child attends, however, all students from kindergarten to 12th grade would be picked up and dropped off at home at the same time.

“Many of our families depend on those older students to help watch or monitor their younger kiddos until mom and dad get home from work, and so we are attempting at least with these preliminary plans to be able to coordinate those pickup and drop offs at the same time,” Deetz said.

The front entrance of the junior/senior high building would become a main hub for transportation in the morning, Deetz said, entailing an expanded version of a process that’s already in place.

Buses would pull to their spots in front of the main entrance and unload junior/senior high students, then elementary students would transfer buses headed to their respective schools.

Additionally, parents wanting a single drop off point could unload their elementary students on the north side of the junior/senior main entrance, and kids would then join other classmates on assigned buses to their elementary school.

Board member Ronald Stewart questioned the safety of kids waiting in front of the school in inclement weather. Deetz said students already brave the elements now, and the timing of when parents could begin to drop off their elementary students would be structured to cut down on long periods of waiting if possible.

While emphasizing no teachers will be laid off as a result of the reconfiguration, Deetz said the district could potentially decrease teaching staff by two to three people by not hiring replacements. That would lead to an average cost savings around $112,000 to $168,000 of salary and benefits, he said. 

He noted those savings would be seen in the educational fund, which receives revenue based on enrollment, with plans to roll any savings back into collective bargaining with the teachers association. However, state law allows corporations to transfer some educational fund money to the operations fund, which could help offset the increased transportation costs, Deetz said.

During public comment, several parents and community members voiced their opposition to the reconfiguration plan. Park Elementary parent Ryan Gossett said he would like to see the corporation focus more on investing in and retaining quality teachers.

“My boy has had a different teacher who has not stayed every year for the past four years except one,” Gossett said. “What can we do better to keep your good teachers?”

Parent Dee Amos said the board should be wary of the reconfiguration affecting state ratings and grades that could attract new families.

She said Indiana Department of Education representatives told her pre-kindergarten to second grade schools display an N/A rating online since they don’t participate in state testing. Also, pre-kindergarten to third grade schools may see lower grades since all of the grade hinges on the third-graders’ test performance.

“So for people that are wanting to move to your communities, that’s the first thing they’re going to do is check how’s your school, and there’s nothing there,” she said of a school up to second grade. “No matter what you do, if you have just third grade in there, your school is going to be having difficulty to get a good grade.”

Community member Ralph Gordon said while he doesn’t have children or grandchildren attending Madison-Grant, he researched neighboring corporations who have undergone similar reconfiguration and found a decline in educational achievement following the change.

“I’m more concerned about the kids and their education,” he said. “I just wanted to let people know the education has got to come first before we worry about buses and combining schools.”

Board members John Hanes and Katti Sneed countered that while achievement may have declined in certain areas, there could be a variety of factors other than reconfiguration alone that caused it. Hanes pointed out declining graduation rates Gordon cited at Oak Hill United School Corporation couldn’t be related to reconfiguration, as elementary students affected by the changes haven’t reached graduation age yet.

Park Elementary parent Deana Wright said she would prefer more of a focus on standardized and strategic curriculum across all classes and grade levels of the district. She said she had not found any research studies that pointed to increased academic achievement following reconfiguration.

“I really do not like standardized testing … but that’s how we are graded, and I think we need to look at a standardized curriculum,” she said. “That’s what I would rather see us focus on rather than consolidating or anything like that.”

Summitville Elementary parent Stacy Austin said while officials have lauded kids from Fairmount and Summitville being consolidated at the elementary level, she believes there is value of waiting to combine until seventh grade to give students a meaningful adjustment to their social circles before college.

“It’s a more stable atmosphere for that first major social interaction beyond when they started kindergarten to occur at the junior high level,” she said. “I would rather have their first social integration to occur in a more structured environment where they’re still under their parents’ roof.”

Hanes said he believes reconfiguration is a move beyond the current situation that can set Madison-Grant up to succeed years down the road as enrollment trends downward.

“It’s not even necessarily for right now. It’s being able to look toward the future because we have seen the statistics that we’re losing kids every year ... and this is a way we can combat that five, 10 years from now so we don’t have to close down another elementary,” he said. “We need to do it while we can and while we’re stable and not while we’re underwater and trying to crawl our way out.”

Austin reminded the board that reconfiguration is not the only option.

“Consolidation is not going to change our enrollment problem,” she said.