HCCSC holds first work session to work on report suggestions

Following the district audit report presented to the Huntington County Community School Corporation Board of School Trustees on March 20, the board held its first work session Monday, March 27, to discuss the suggestions offered in the report.

The board held itself to two hours, focusing on its top priority, the school buildings and what to do with them in light of a declining student enrollment. The meeting, as explained by Superintendent Randy Harris, was an effort to be more transparent regarding the school board decision-making process. It was discussion-only meeting; there were no motions or votes taken, nor was public input allowed regarding the corporation’s seven elementary schools, two middle schools, the high school and the Horace Mann Education Center building.

The consultants who conducted the survey, former school superintendents Mike Pettibone and Dr. Steve Yager, targeted three HCCSC buildings they said were not in good shape: Northwest, Lancaster and Roanoke elementary schools. But board members agreed that a decision on what to do with those building hinges on enrollment and redistricting, two other problems identified in the Pettibone and Yager study.

Jon Bennett, assistant superintendent for business and classified staff, reminded the board that the outdated sewage treatment plant at Northwest Elementary is in bad shape. Two years ago the board obtained price quotes ranging from $1 million to take the sewage plant offsite, $400,000 to $500,000 to refurbish the plant or $40,000 to $50,000 to pay for specific upgrades to the equipment.

Bennett assured the board that the sewage plant is working, water at Northwest is tested twice a week and there is no contamination.

“The plant itself is on borrowed time,” he said, “and if we’re going to maintain that building for the next five years, we probably need to look at some of those costs involved in the $40,000 to $50,000 range.”

The board quickly came to the conclusion that a decision on the corporation’s buildings could not be made without taking a look at future student enrollment numbers and redistricting boundaries. Pettibone and Yager also pointed out the two issues, but board members agreed they are linked.

The corporation’s student enrollment in 2010 was 5,716.42; last fall it was 5,004.5. And while the state changed the way student enrollment is counted in the past couple of years, the corporation is still losing roughly 100 students per year.

Harris suggested spending between $8,000 and $10,000 to do a demographic study of the county, which would determine future areas of growth and where students would be located.

“One thing we need to look at to make the real decisions, we probably need to hire a demographer that can come in, to not only predict what our enrollments will be in the county as a whole, but also look internal to the county,” Harris said. “Are we going to see growth to the south end, or are we going to see continued decline at the south end? And are we going to see growth at the north end? What’s the likelihood that we’re going to see the northeast quadrant closer to Fort Wayne grow, while maybe the southwest quadrant by the reservoir decreases?”

The board directed administrators to contact a demographer to obtain more information on how quickly a study could be completed. Harris also said the transportation department could use its new bus scheduling software to plan out different bus route maps based on school closings.

The board came up with five scenarios that it wants to consider:

• Close Lancaster, re-open Horace Mann as an elementary school.

• Close Roanoke and Northwest and build a new elementary school.

• Close Roanoke, Northwest and Lancaster and build a new school.

• Close Lancaster and Northwest and re-open Horace Mann.

• Close Lancaster Elementary only.

The board also set a timeline goal to make a decision on which option to adopt.

“We’re working as hard as we can to hit that,” said Board Member Reed Christiansen. “We’re not going to make a rash decision just to hit a deadline, but we need to be accountable and working hard toward that.”

Board President Mathew Roth said the board is making these decisions based on where people live.

“Whatever the decision is, we need to make it as easy for teachers and students as possible,” he said. “As un-unpleasant as possible, because it’s not going to be pleasant, no matter what decisions we make. I mean, people are going to be changing schools, and teachers are going to be changing schools … We need to talk to people who went through it last time; what was done right, what was done wrong and what we can do better.”

Harris said the public can view a video of the entire work session online at the HCCSC website, www.hccsc.k12.in.us, and can make comments and suggestions by email com ments@hccsc.k12.in.us. Those emails will be forwarded to each board member.

The next school board meeting is set for April 10, at 7 p.m. in the Horace Mann Education Center. At that time the board will hear from administration regarding the demographics and transportation studies and will make a decision on when to hold the next public work session.