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South Bend school board weighs options on closure of schools

March 08, 2010|By Troy Kehoe (tkehoe@wsbt.com)
  • South Bend Superintendent James Kapsa outlines a $6.9 million budget reduction facing the corporation. Board members hope to make a final decision on what to eliminate to make up the deficit by April. (WSBT Photo)
South Bend Superintendent James Kapsa outlines a $6.9 million budget reduction facing the corporation. Board members hope to make a final decision on what to eliminate to make up the deficit by April. (WSBT Photo)

SOUTH BEND — South Bend school board members face a series of tough options ahead as they continue to search for ways to cut more than $8.2 million from this year's budget. Administrators have suggested shutting down several school buildings to help make up the deficit. Monday, board members got a closer look at which schools might be impacted. Those budget cuts follow a $297 million reduction in state education funding mandated by Governor Mitch Daniels late last year after state tax revenues came in nearly $1.8 billion short. South Bend stands to lose about $6.8 million due to those cuts, in addition to a $1.4 million loss in per student funding. Monday night, administrators gave the board a list of five options for facility closures or re-alignments. Some school board members called the list of changes a game of "musical schools." All called them tough decisions. "Nobody likes to close schools," board member Sheila Bergeron told the board. "But, we have a lot to cut." Reductions in school corporation facilities could help avoid massive layoffs to teachers and staff, by cutting out huge costs. "Just the heating and cooling alone is a lot," said board member Bill Sniadecki. "But, then you've got the staff, principals, secretaries. It's a big cost for each [building]." "Our enrollment is down. We have some facilities that aren't used very fully. We ought to close some and move forward as quickly as possible," agreed board member Roger Parent. Administrators came up with a list of five options to help do that, presenting them to the board for the first time Monday night. Among them: 1) Closing Green Intermediate Center for a total savings of approximately $750,000 Greene is in a rural location in the southwest corner of the corporation's boundaries, Superintendent James Kapsa told the board. It also has the lowest enrollment of all the corporation's intermediate schools at 405 students, and room exists at other intermediate school buildings to absorb additional students. "95 percent of the kids going [to Greene] are not from that district. They're bussed in. So, I think this has really been looked at for the last year or so," Sniadecki said. 2) Closing Lafayette Traditional Elementary School for a total savings of approximately $380,000 Lafayette, located near Washington High School, also has a low enrollment of 217 students. Room also exists at nearby Warren Primary School or Coquillard Primary School to absorb students there. It is possible, Kapsa said, that the traditional program at Lafayette could be moved to one of those schools. "We have to see which one is a better fit. We believe there could be room at both facilities. Which one makes the most sense with regard to the clientele we're serving and with regard to transportation, and so on," Kapsa said. Closing Lafayette would also make a corporation building available for the Head Start pre-school program. Grant money and state credits would pay for that program, ensuring that the corporation wasn't spending money to keep the building open any longer, Kapsa said. Both of the first two options seemed to bring little debate from board members. "I don't want to wait on this. We're talking about more than $1 million that we could save every year just from consolidating a few schools and closing a few. I say, let's go for it. If it were my money, I'd close those schools tomorrow," Parent said. But, other options created more heated opinions. 3) Move Bendix Alternative School to Eggleston Primary or Hamilton Traditional School. Bendix School's programs need additional space, which both Eggleston and Hamilton could provide, Kapsa told the board. If Hamilton was selected, current students there would be transferred to the new Monroe Primary Center, making it a "traditional" school. If Eggleston was selected, administrators would have to find new funding for transportation, as busing services aren't currently offered there. The vacated Bendix site near the South Bend Regional Airport would then be available to be used for adult education classes. 4) Move Early College programs out of Riley High School and into Studebaker School Kapsa told the board the move of between 135 and 155 students would create additional space at Riley, as well as strengthen the early college program. "Not only would there be potential cost savings, but it could also improve education," Kapsa said. Little cost would be associated with remodeling Studebaker for the Early College Program, Kapsa added. 5) Establish a New Tech High School at either Studebaker or Riley High School With Early College program space vacated, a New Tech program could be housed within Riley High School, if the board is still interested in the concept, Kapsa said. School board members voted down a proposal to locate a New Tech High School at the former MaryCrest building last year. New Tech is a highly touted national program known for technical and vocational based education. It only took a moment for debate to erupt. "I didn't think this was something that was going to be done," said Parent. "I doubt it can be done. There's a lot of things that have to be required to be accepted as a New Tech High School. They're only doing that because of the fact that I've been working to get one anyway." Following the failed vote last year, Parent announced his intent to open a Charter School, with the goal of turning it into a New Tech High School with, or without the school corporation's support. "This doesn't change our plans at all. Progress is still being made. We told [the school corporation] that if they wanted to partner with us, we'll get all the money from the private sector and foundations and move forward and get it started. And, in 3-4 years of successful operation, we'll hand it back to the school corporation," Parent said. For that reason, Sniadecki said the board shouldn't even talk about New Tech as a "realistic option." He blasted Kapsa for including it in the proposal before being admonished by Board President Marcia Hummel for being out-of-line. "That was voted down," Sniadecki yelled into the microphone. "You can't bring it back to a year. That's totally against regulations. How much time have you been spending on New Tech instead of concentrating on this corporation?" Then, pausing after a gasp from the audience, Sniadecki continued. "In the last year, I want to know: how much of your staff--" "Mr. Sniadecki," Kapsa interrupted. "Listen to me!" yelled Sniadecki, before being stopped by Hummel. "That's the truth!" After calming down, Sniadecki addressed the issue again after the meeting. "The concept was that it would be funded--not by the public, but by private money. The money never got there, and that's why it was voted down. Now, they're trying to find the money grant-wise," Sniadecki said. "Well, grants run out. So, how do we go to the public, lay people off, close up schools, and then open up another school? That makes no common sense whatsoever," Sniadecki continued. "Frankly, I think anything we do with regard to any cuts, there's going to be people that are dis-satisfied," said Kapsa. "But, we're in a situation right now where we have to cut at least $8 million dollars. There's a huge grocery list of things that have to be done in order for that to take place." Then, pausing, Kapsa continued. "I wanted to get a feel of if there's really strong interest [in closing down schools]. What I believe I heard tonight is that there is." All of the first four options would require court approval, because each would require redistricting in order for the corporation to remain compliant with a consent decree on racial segregation. Board members were told Monday that a judge's approval could take as much as four months. Board members will consider the options again, and could take action on them, at the end of the month. Click here for a more detailed look at proposed facility reductions in the South Bend Community School Corporation.

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