by Ashley Flynn
Just weeks after the Metropolitan School District of Wabash County announced its decision to close LaFontaine Elementary School, Wabash City Schools Superintendent Jason Callahan proposed a similar plan for his district.
In January, the Wabash City School’s board will vote whether or not to close W.C. Mills Elementary School, which holds grades four and five for the whole district.
Mr. Callahan presented the plan to reconfigure the district during Monday’s school board meeting. The new plan proposes that fourth grade students move to OJ Neighbours Elementary School and fifth grade students move to Wabash Middle School making the district a three campus district of K-4, 5-8 and 9-12.
Before Mr. Callahan’s proposal, EMCOR gave a presentation on their feasibility study on heating and cooling for all three campuses in the district.
The group also looked at additional structural repairs W.C. Mills would need as far as windows and doors. According to their study, the project would cost $3.2 million for the updates. OJ and Wabash Middle School need $1,814,000 in updates.
It came as no surprise to Mr. Callahan that W.C. Mills is in need of major updates.
“About six years ago, I was working on my superintendent’s license, and one of the projects I had to do was a facility feasibility study,” Mr. Callahan told The Paper. “I had to look at all the buildings in the corporation and how old the facilities are, the present condition of heating and cooling, roofs, paving and all those things that go into maintaining a facility.
“The one thing that really came out of that study was that W.C. Mills, which was built in 1927 as Linlawn High School, is in the worst shape in the district. Our buildings and grounds director, Bruce Maxwell, walked me through all this. He explained that he thought, and this was six years ago, Mills had probably 10 years before major renovation needed to occur.
“So the last six years, this has been in my mind. This is my third year as superintendent. It’s been something that, when do we make that investment, or when do we make a change.”
Mr. Callahan explored other options, such as making OJ a K-5 or K-6 building, but that project would cost $6-8 million.
“The option that I’m proposing is much more affordable, and to me, with the enrollment trend, is much more feasible,” he said.
“If the enrollment trend changes and starts increasing, we can always look to expand again at OJ.”
Also announced at Monday’s board meeting was Jan Roland’s plan to retire. Also retiring is Dave Ingols. Ingols was a custodian, the purchaser for custodial inventory and part of administration for vehicle maintenance.
“Another piece of this is Mrs. Roland, my chief business officer, is retiring at the end of this year. That allows for some dominoes to occur where we can save money in administration as well,” Mr. Callahan explained to The Paper a week before the board meeting.
“If we remained under our current system, we would have to add in administration. My fear is then, if we waited a year or two or three… Let’s say we’re not going to do this until that decade comes or until it has to happen. My goal is that if we’re reducing personnel, then it’s going to be through attrition and not through people losing their jobs. So we have that retirement; we also have a custodial retirement. Those retirements allow us to save in personnel salary.”
With Mr. Callahan’s proposed plan, no W.C. Mill’s employees would lose his or her job. They could all transfer.
Mr. Mattern, W.C. Mills’ principal would become the new Wabash Middle School principal. And Mr. Bumgardner, Wabash Middle School Principal, would fill the spot Jan Roland is leaving.
With the upcoming retirements, the district would save $100,000 in salaries because those positions would not need to be replaced with new employees. Also, the district would save approximately $150,000 in capital projects, as well as the $3.2 million needed to update W.C. Mills.
That money could be used for other projects such as expanding the Middle School cafeteria, which is a project that has been discussed for several years.
“With all that being said, I don’t want this to be just about finances. Because maybe that’s what started the conversation, but one of the things we’ve also looked at is how do we do a better job at transitioning our kids to elementary to middle school to high school,” Mr. Callahan said.
“How we have it now, kids go from W.C. Mills as fifth graders and then they just step right into middle school. They go from a self contained classroom to rotating to six or seven teachers a day.”
The proposed plan puts fifth and sixth graders in one hallway of the Middle School and the seventh and eighth graders upstairs.
“Fifth grade will stay as elementary. They will stay self-contained with one teacher, and we will begin transitioning in sixth grade rotating classes. The game plan is to have different dismissals so they aren’t in the hallways together. Fifth and sixth grades will eat lunch together. I feel like it will be a better transition for our kids moving from the elementary setting to a more secondary setting,” he said.
Mr. Callahan and other Wabash City Schools representatives visited Bluffton, Ind., where they’ve had a 5-8 middle school for several years. Last year, Bluffton-Harrison Middle School was an A School.
“So it is possible, and it can be very successful. They talked a lot about that transition piece with bringing upper elementary kids who needed to be treated like elementary kids, and then helping them transition into less and less structure so that they’re more responsible for getting to class on time and doing their homework,” said Mr. Callahan.
Some parents have voiced their concerns about the plan.
“Parents have asked, ‘is my fifth grader going to be spending time with eighth graders’ and will my fifth grader to go school dances,’ and no, that’s not the case.”
“Currently, we allow sixth graders to go to middle school dances, and we’ve been talking about that. Maybe we could do events for fifth and sixth graders, not a dance, but like a Halloween party in the fall. And then after that party, seventh and eighth graders can have a dance,” Mr. Callahan continued. “I really like what Bluffton did. At the last dance of the year, they allow sixth graders to attend. So it’s sort of that transition again.”
Another benefit to reconfiguring the district is reducing teachers’ need to go between schools.
Currently, the elementary schools share band, art and music teachers.
“Those teachers could stay in one building. That would give our kids more time with related arts. Also, we currently operate with two nurses--one at OJ full-time and one at the middle/high school full-time.” The librarian at W.C. Mills fulfills nursing duties for that building.
The future of the W.C. Mills school building has yet to be decided. If it closes as a school, Mr. Callahan hopes to lease it out for at least a year to see how the reconfiguration goes.
“We are not looking to quickly get rid of it. I think I would prefer to potentially lease it,” he said.
The Wabash City School’s district last reconfigured over a decade ago with the closing of Miami Elementary School.
“When that closed, we went from having community schools, so it really depended on you lived, where you went to school. But since that closure, every kid went to OJ. We no longer have community schools,” Mr. Callahan said.
In reference to another recent school closing in the county, Mr. Callahan continued, “So even in LaFontaine, I mean that’s their community. But for W.C. Mills, my kids went to W.C. Mills because that’s where all our fourth and fifth graders went. It’s not so much that community school feeling anymore that it used to be.”
With the closing of one school, and the likely closing of a second school in the county, the thought of consolidating the two districts comes to mind.
“We’re already sharing services and partnering on a lot of things. I foresee at a district level, those things will continue to be shared and continue to look towards consolidation. My hope is that we would be able to sit down and look at what’s best for the kids. If that’s consolidation, then that’s consolidation.”
“With current enrollment trends, I can’t imagine that we would not. But what’s that look like? That’s left to be determined. In talking with Dr. Weaver, that’s not tomorrow, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t start talking about that and how that works. Again, let’s build out what’s going to be best for our kids and then go from there.”
Mr. Callahan will hold a public discussion Thursday, Dec. 19 at 6 p.m. in the Middle School auditorium. He will discuss strategic planning for the district as well as the reconfiguration plan. The community is invited to come with questions.