by Ashley Flynn
The Metropolitan School District of Wabash County board voted unanimously to close the LaFontaine Elementary School after the current school year.
The board began discussing closure with the public after last April when structural damage was discovered in a classroom.
The damage revealed a corroding beam, which would cost $150,000 to repair. Since the discovery, grades four and five have been moved to Southwood Elementary for safety concerns, leaving only sixth graders in the building for the 2013-2014 school year.
Over the past several months, the board held open discussions with the community to receive feedback and ideas on the issue. Concerned citizens questioned how the move would affect the quality of life in LaFontaine. While the board kept in mind the emotions of the community, they reminded the public that it is their duty to do what is best for the entire school district.
Board members took the time to investigate options and weigh benefits before Dr. Weaver made her recommendation.
“In 1978 our enrollment in the school district was at an all time high at 3,300 students. We have experienced a decline steadily… but we are down to a little over the 2,000 mark,” Dr. Weaver said during the board meeting. “In the 1999-2000 school year, Southwood Elementary had an enrollment of 492. If we close Lafontaine, the projected enrollment for next year at Southwood Elementary would be 479.”
“Why do I tell you that?” she asked, “to let you know that the students will fit in that building.”
“By closing the school, not talking at all about capital projects, only general fund, which is a fund that is very low right now. That’s where salaries and benefits are paid out of; we would anticipate our savings to be at $194,000 annually,” Dr. Weaver explained. In addition, the school would require $500,000 in updates within the next 3-5 years.
“I was hired to do what is best for the students, all the students in the district, and sometimes that means you have to do those hard things, and I would never recommend this if I didn’t think it was the right thing to do for the kids in the district. It certainly isn’t an easy thing to do.
“I’ve been grinding my teeth all day and all night, and be that as it may, I still think this is what we have to do for this district to keep going. So in summary, I recommend that the Board of Education vote to close LaFontaine Elementary School at the end of the 2013-2014 school year. In addition, I would recommend that the school be maintained with minimum heating and cooling, grounds upkeep and daily property checks,” said Dr. Weaver.
She also recommended that the school be listed as “available” on the Indiana Department of Education website, meaning a charter school could come in and lease the building. The district is required to have the building listed as available for two consecutive years before selling it. If a charter school were to lease the building, the district would have no say in who moves in. They could, however; make the building unavailable at anytime.
Following the recommendation, board members spoke briefly about the difficulty of making such a decision, and then voted 5-0 to close LaFontaine Elementary.
For the 2014-2015 school year, all LaFontaine Elementary students will be transferred to Southwood Elementary. All Lafontaine Elementary School teachers will also transfer to Southwood. The head cook will move, and the district is looking for a position for the janitor. LaFontaine Principal Chris Kuhn will become the new Southwood Elementary School Principal, filling the spot of Janet Shumaker who is set to retire at the end of this school year. Other employees will lose his or her job.
Desks, books, technology and other equipment will move to Southwood or to other schools in the district.
The board hopes to leave the playground equipment for the children in LaFontaine, but is still waiting to hear from insurance about liability issues.
Closing LaFontaine Elementary will save the district money, but board members called it a “Band Aid solution.”
“If we needed that building and the student count was high, we would fix that building. This helps us, but this doesn’t solve it,” said board member Kevin Bowman.
Dr. Weaver added, “We are already talking about what’s the next step because this is not the fix all.”