Northwest, Lancaster to close in 2018; Horace Mann to re-open as elementary

A united Huntington County Community School Corporation school board decided on  Monday, July 24, to close Northwest and Lancaster elementary schools while re-opening Horace Mann building as an elementary school.

Those two schools will close after the current 2017-18 school year.

In addition, the board will begin the process of building a new school in the Roanoke area.

The board was deeply divided on the timetable for closing schools and whether to build a new school in Roanoke.

Extra chairs were brought in to the boardroom at the Horace Mann Education Center to accommodate those in attendance who wanted to know whether the ax would fall on their schools.

Only one person spoke to the board during the public comment section of the meeting. Roanoke Town Councilman John Stoeckley said the council was in consensus in opposition to the closing of the school in its community.

“We feel that Roanoke School in itself is an educational asset for both Roanoke and Jackson Township,” Stoeckley said. “They’ve got first-rate staff, a first-rate facility, and the staff provides the individual attention that students at that age that we feel is necessary … Put the money in the students, where they are.”

The board more than answered Stoeckley’s request, voting 4-3 to begin the process to build a new school in Roanoke. However, it came with much discussion, and at times frustration, from board members weighing their arguments over how to go about dealing with the ongoing decrease in student population in Huntington County.

The motion to close Northwest and Lancaster schools was made by Brian Warpup and seconded by Reed Christiansen.

But Board President Matt Roth threw what he called a “curveball,” going off the two options the board had expected to consider during the meeting, and suggesting five options, including what he called an “aggressive option” of closing Roanoke, Lancaster, Northwest and building a new elementary school to serve the northeast portion of the county’s school children, while not re-opening Horace Mann.
He said he was concerned that the corporation may have to close Horace Mann again in two or three years.

“We are not the only school corporation facing this,” he said, citing a recent magazine article that reported shrinking enrollments in other schools. “I want everyone to know that the vast majority of school corporations are facing this issue, if not more, because many of them are contemplating consolidation — something that we don’t have to face because we’re a countywide school corporation.”

Roth said HCCSC hit a peak enrollment of 6,930 in the 1994-95 school year, but had only 5,168 students in 2016-17.

“That’s a loss of almost 1,800 students over that 23 years, yet we still have the same number of buildings,” he said. “That’s a loss of $10.8 million in terms of funding.”

A recent demographic study predicted that the corporation will lose another 521 students in the next 10 years, Roth added.

He advocated the “close three, build one” option, but staggering the closing dates for the schools, saying if the trends are accurate that Horace Mann wouldn’t need to re-open as a school.

“We can service the students with five elementary schools and build one that’s the correct size in Roanoke at some point in the future,” he said.

After additional discussion, Roth asked if any other board members supported his option. No one raised their hand. The board instead went with Warpup’s motion and voted 7-0 to close Lancaster and Northwest while returning Horace Mann back to use as a school.

It was the motion to build a new Roanoke school and the timetable of when these events would occur that caused a deep division among board members.

Board member Gary McClellan said the biggest issue he saw would be building a school while having class in the old building, which was built in 1927.

“I am not going to put kids in trailers,” he said. “We need to figure that out, what we’re doing … We need to have that school built before we close the school up north.”

Christiansen made a motion to build a new school in Roanoke, which was seconded by Kevin Yarger. He amended his motion to give administration permission to start the process to build a new school in Roanoke, since there would be legal and other considerations necessary to begin the process. The board passed the motion 4-3, with members Roth, Warpup and Matt Melcher voting no.

Melcher, who represents District 1, wanted a definite date set for Lancaster Elementary’s closing. A motion tendered by Warpup, seconded by Roth, set the closures of both Lancaster and Northwest to take effect with the 2018-19 school year.

Board members Yarger, Christiansen and McClellan voted against the motion, Yarger saying he wanted to move kids only one time with redistricting to accommodate a balance of students at the remaining schools.

Transportation Director Vanessa Fields said it would be a challenge to redistrict students, and she would have to “redistrict everyone” to achieve a balance.

One thing that Roth made clear was that HCCSC is not building a new administrative center.

School Superintendent Randy Harris agreed with the motion to close the two schools and re-open Horace Mann, saying finding a spot for the administrative offices is not the corporation’s top priority.

“It’s kids, teachers and the education we provide,” he said. “Central office will find someplace to go, whether it’s in an existing building that we close, a new location — whatever it may be.”

Harris also expressed his appreciation for the hard work and tough decisions the board has languished over the past few months.
“With what you’ve done thus far tonight, I think that definitely gives direction to the administration now,” he told board members. “I think we’re going in the right direction. We made some major moves tonight.”

One thing the board could do with the money saved from closing the schools is increase teacher salaries, said Chad Daugherty, assistant superintendent for instruction. He said HCCSC is losing teachers to other districts that pay them more.

“We’ve lost a lot of good ones,” he said. “Our kids deserve the best and brightest teachers that we have.”  
Another public work session to begin hammering out plans for the closures, new Roanoke school and redistricting has tentatively been set for Aug. 21, at 7 p.m., at the Horace Mann Education Center. The next school board meeting will be held Aug. 14, at 7 p.m., also at HMEC.