MSD debates continuing with second phase of school study

By Emma Rausch

The MSD of Wabash County Board of Education debated Tuesday, Nov. 28, whether or not it should continue pursing the Studies for Advancement Phase II.

The board hosted a working session prior to its regular board meeting to discuss the Phase II primary investigation goal.

On Nov. 14, the Community Foundation of Wabash County announced the second phase of the feasibility-study initiative would focus on a “further detailed investigation of district consolidation,” according to a press release.

At least a dozen members of the public attended the working session along with three representatives of the Community Foundation, including Executive Director Patty Grant, Program Director Julie Garber and Carol Lindquist, the studies coordinator appointed by the CFWC, who answered the board’s questions during the working session.

Board Chair Kevin Bowman asked the Foundation representatives why Phase II narrowly focused on investigating consolidation.

“I think that our purpose in Phase I was to provide you, all three districts, with a common language and matrix to look at your own districts and to be able to use that information internally,” Grant told the board, “and then, should you decide to, with that common matrix, be able discuss things between one another. … I think that the studies were thorough enough that it led us to the remaining questions.

“So to answer your question why is Phase II aimed at discussing and investigating district consolidation is because we felt that Phase I answered all the questions that could be handled internally or between yourselves and the other districts, and that the remaining questions to be answered are about what does it look for district consolidation?”

Grant added that questions surrounding the topic have been lingering.

“And they really can only be answered by investigating the three models that are afforded by Indiana Code and by districts sitting down and using those common matrices from the first studies to flush out what those models look like,” she said, adding, “We definitely, here tonight, want to hear your concerns.”

Grant noted that the representatives can only provide information and that they cannot, nor do they intend, to influence what the board does with that information.

Board member Todd Dazey told the Foundation’s representatives that, in April, when the Foundation said “in Phase II, districts may elect to evaluate further opportunities across district lines,” he said he interpreted that to also include distance learning or resource sharing investigations “and I don’t hear that being presented as an option now.”

“I’m not necessarily asking you to tell us what to do,” Dazey said. “That’s not your decision to make, but in Phase I, in April, it was described to us that in Phase II it would be up to us to evaluate how we go from there and now all of a sudden ‘how do we go from there’ has become pick a method of consolidation and go.”

Dazey questioned the representatives if Phase II was “always” going to be focused on district consolidation, referencing a quote attributed to Grant.

“Phase II has always been intended to explore district sharing services and common interests,” Grant responded.

The board discussed Manchester Community School’s and Wabash City School’s respective decisions regarding the studies. On Nov. 14, the MCS board voted to no longer participate in the countywide initiative.

Bowman noted that he liked MCS Superintendent Mike Pettibone’s comment that there were better options to explore instead of consolidation, such as collaborating as a county.

Tim Drake, MSD assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction, replied that “I think that we would love to collaborate, but the system is designed to stop us from collaborating,” noting that schools across the state are competing for students.

The school board discussed the advantages and disadvantages of pursuing the studies’ second phase as well as what crafting a joint proposal with Wabash City Schools would ask to cover.

“As we weigh through all of those facts and all of those issues, it puts a challenge on us to talk to another school district and be open and frank and honest,” Drake said. “So I appreciate the (Community Foundation’s) offer.”

Bowman shared his past experiences with researching consolidation.

“When I first came on the board about nine and a half years ago, we had new leadership and within six months of that transition, we were well into this consolidation discussion and it was ongoing nonstop,” he said. “So for me, a lot of this has been looked at and, I say this very humbly, I’ve looked at this probably as much as anybody has and I circled the whole thing in my decision process probably three times and I have a couple big hurdles I can’t get over.”

He also expressed doubts of continuing to pursue the studies.

“As far as the Phase II study goes, I think we’re on our last leg,” Bowman said. “I just have to say that and I’m also convinced that the driving force behind the study long ago concluded that consolidation was the only way into the future. The implementation of consolidation is now their goal.

“Phase II will be manipulated to press support toward achieving that goal. Even if it is agreed that the studies should include other things beside consolidation, the spirit of cooperation will be missing.

“Guys, that’s my big concern,” he said. “As you start working toward your community engagement and stuff like that, I think some of the discussion will shift more toward … five-year, get it done kind of thing.”

Bowman later noted that those comments were referring to Wabash City Schools, not the Community Foundation, who funds the studies that are led by Lindquist, an outside party.

Board member Matt Driscoll and Dazey questioned if the study would explore teacher job loss and if consolidation would attract families and youths.

Grant said that those would be part of the things to figure out.

Board member Todd Topliff said that, while conversations about consolidation and district reconfiguration have taken place in the past, he does not feel that a full conversation regarding consolidation or the options for consolidation has been conducted.

“At least put the options on the table and be able to say, ‘What does it look like compared to our reconfiguration or staying by ourselves and doing this with our programming or what have you,’” Topliff said. “I’m not saying to go down the consolidation road, but for us to throw out with the whole process of not being able to think about it or not even put it on the table if we don’t continue on with the Phase II and at least have that option out there, then we’re back to where we were a year ago with what can we do among ourselves?”

Bowman noted that Huntington’s school districts consolidated and are faring poorly, with the student body declining.

“That’s why we should use Phase II,” Board member Gary Fadil said, later adding that the board has the power to outline what information it would like to have regarding consolidation investigation.

However, Bowman said that consolidation can be studied “to a point.”

He also noted that the board needs to keep its taxpayers in mind. He explained that if the MSD and WCS were to consolidate, their net assessed valuation of $777,000,000 and $207,000,000 respectively would combine into a $984,000,000 net assessed valuation. He added that, if $1 million cost is generated, MSD taxpayers would absorb 79 percent of “any incoming or taxable bond” or $790,000 would be paid from the MSD district.

Fadil replied that “everyone’s dollar is still the same dollar” and if the two districts were to combine, it would become one pot. Fadil noted to consider what’s best for the children while Bowman expressed the importance of including taxpayers in their decision making process.

After the hour-long meeting, Bowman and Fadil agreed the discussion warranted emotional responses because of the nature of the topic.

Following the meeting, Superintendent Mike Keaffaber told The Paper of Wabash County, “I think it continues to be an emotional discussion, but I think it was good. It opened up some things at the work session. Although it can become emotional, it’s good just to be able to talk about it. We get different perspectives from different people.”

No follow up discussion about the studies was scheduled as of Tuesday night following the board meeting, Keaffaber advised.

Following the school board’s regular meeting, members of the public voiced their opinions on the matter.

Keith Gillenwater, Grow Wabash County CEO and President as well as MSD district resident, requested that the board continue to pursue Phase II.

“(Consolidation is) not a new topic in here, in this community,” Gillenwater said. “It’s been discussed a long time, but to my knowledge we haven’t, I haven’t seen that information where we’ve taken that deep dive into actually looking at what ... that would actually look like and what that would be for transportation or tax rates or curriculum or what classes you could offer in the arts or education or whatever those kinds of things are or brought in a lot of community input to it as well.

“My understanding of the study is it only commits parties to carefully examine what the potential benefits and challenges would be and then it would be up to the individual boards then to determine if you move forward with it and whatever that looks like.”

Lori Cruz, district resident and Northfield alumna, expressed similar thoughts to Gillenwater’s.

“Also, I would like to encourage you not to withdraw from Phase II because as a taxpayer I elected you to do your homework and I would like to see you do your homework,” she said.

No member of the public spoke in favor of leaving the initiative during the meeting.

Posted on 2017 Dec 05