Parents had a final opportunity Monday evening to express their thoughts on the best way Lakeland School Corporation should address funding issues across the district due to low student enrollment numbers. Many who spoke Monday evening were parents who opposed Superintendent Dr. Eva Merkel’s proposal to close two elementary schools: Lima-Brighton and Wolcott Mills.
But Lakeland school board members still voted 4-2 to move forward with the superintendent’s plan.
Less than 2,000 students are currently enrolled in the district; with roughly 150 students in each grade level; across three elementary schools, one middle school, and one high school.
Under Merkel’s proposal, Lakeland Primary would house grades K-3, Lakeland Intermediate, grades 4-6, and Lakeland Jr./Sr. High School would house grades 7-12.
In one of her slides, she noted that while it might seem like the high school would be tight for space with the number of students enrolled, she said with the number of programs like internships, other partnerships and with expected further decrease in enrollment, she says the building can house the necessary students.
But Merkel’s suggestion was scrutinized from the moment she presented it. Closing two schools would require some staff and faculty cuts across the district.
But cutting operating costs in two buildings, Merkel argued, made sense for a shrinking district.
She noted the district would maintain ownership of the empty buildings, if there were a need in the future to open them again, but would in the meantime try to find other community uses for them.
Parents against the proposal brought up issues with Merkel’s proposal, including a concern for long busing routes, teachers anticipating not having classrooms and what some parents felt was the school corporation and board not listening to them.
“I would question how you guys think you’ll have the community support,” one of the parents asked during the public comment section, “when you have so many people who are against this option and very passionate about it, and how you’re going to get that community support from people, moving forward."
In an effort to address vocal concerns over the potential effects closing two schools could have on the community, school board members decided to give the public an opportunity to present other ideas. Committees were established to explore other options, and look into factors affecting student enrollment.
Suggestions ranged from different arrangements for what schools to close, to a referendum or to even opening a charter school in the district.
While the board didn’t wholly support any of the proposals put forth by community members, Merkel says there were some tweaks made to the original proposal that stemmed from the presentations by community members.
“There’s a couple of different tweaks,” Merkel said, “incorporating a lot of the ideas that the community had.”
Merkel said, while looking for new sources of revenue and trying to bring in new students was part of the plan, immediate action needed to be taken to be able to continue providing services for students.
Merkel’s plan proposes no cuts to student programs or support services, such as special education, behavioral intervention or technology support. She noted also that no fine arts or athletics programs would be cut as well, but rather improved by combining schools and resources. Bus routes and classes sizes would be accommodated as needed.
Some parents opposed to the plan suggest closing the schools would cause more students to leave the district, and said if the schools remained open, a hypothetical referendum could be passed in the future to help with funding. Those present at the meeting who were opposed to the plan, urged the board to keep the schools open, because they say closing the schools feels like the school corporation and the community has given up.
Merkel said the next step is to select school leadership and start conversations about next year.
“[We have to] get those new communities of schools starting to talk about what next year is going to look like and get lots of staff input on what it should look like to really making those school buildings their own,” she said.
Lakeland Schools estimates initial cost savings from the Superintendent’s proposal be over $1 million, most of those stemming from cuts in staff and operation costs.