Discussions about the future of school alignment, buildings to begin around county

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Beginning next week, the Switzerland County School Corporation will begin a series of community meetings around the county pointed at getting citizen input about the future of buildings in the system – including the possibility of building a new elementary school to replace Jefferson-Craig and the redistricting of elementary students to lessen overcrowding conditions at Switzerland County Elementary School.

“The school corporation over the past two years has discussed if the schools in the system – particularly Jefferson-Craig – has what they need to educate our kids in the 21st Century,” superintendent Tracy Caddell said. “We had a feasibility study of community members who met to look at all of the different needs, and we are at a point where we need to start developing a plan for the future, and we need the community to join us in this conversation.”

Tracy Caddell stressed that no architects have been hired; or any other individual or group that would become a part of a new building – should one be built. He did acknowledge that some groups have come forward on their own to offer suggestions, but that nothing has been decided.

“We truly want to have a conversation with the community about what our needs are for our children,” Tracy Caddell said.

The meetings will be held around the county, with the first two being set for this Thursday, January 18th. One will be held in the administrative offices on Seminary Street and will begin at 3 p.m.; and another meeting will be held on the same day at Switzerland County Elementary School beginning at 6:30 p.m.

Other meetings are expected to be held in Patriot, Moorefield, and Vevay; and those dates and times will be announced in next week’s Vevay Newspaper.

Tracy Caddell and assistant superintendent Darin Gullion have been going through the report of the feasibility study for the past two years; and met again with members of the committee about two months ago to update them on what has been done since the study was completed.

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After all of the discussion, the plans boil down to three potential options – which then have eight different choices.

Option one is to renovate the existing Jefferson-Craig building; while option two is to build a new Jefferson-Craig on the land that the school corporation already owns to the west of the high school. Option three is to do nothing.

“I don’t think doing nothing is a viable option, unless the community simply says ‘don’t do it’,” the superintendent said. “That’s why we’re wanting to have these discussions.”

All of the discussions center around some questions that came from the feasibility study committee.

The committee, after touring all four buildings and hearing from all of the principals, recommended that the school system look for ways to move the sixth graders out of the middle school and back into the elementary schools. This would ease the crowding at the middle school, which has already outgrown itself even though it is the newest building in the system; but statistics also show that sixth graders achieve at a higher level academically if they are in an elementary school rather than a middle school.

But moving the sixth graders back to two elementary schools that are already overcrowded causes more problems. In an effort to address those, the committee looked at the possibility of redistricting the county’s children in order to make the two elementary schools more balanced.

Currently, Jefferson-Craig has about 250 students; while Switzerland County Elementary has approximately 450. redistricting would balance the two schools to a more even enrollment.

But redistricting wouldn’t come quickly.

“If there is redistricting, we hope that everyone would be aware of why it would go on and how it is in the best interest of the children,” Darin Gullion said. “Our ultimate goal is to balance the elementary enrollment, which would eliminate some of the larger class sizes that we have now at Switzerland County Elementary.”

The third question is what to do about Jefferson-Craig Elementary.

Built in 1954, the school has already been through two renovations, but there is still extensive work to be done. The plumbing and electrical systems are original to the building, and when a water line broke last year, students and staff went weeks without drinking fountains and were limited to using the restroom facilities in the gymnasium.

That problem was fixed, but there are still major issues with a sewer system that is more than 50 years old; antiquated light fixtures in rooms that no longer have replacement parts for; and a run down heating a cooling system that has classrooms boiling one day and freezing the next.

The classrooms themselves were built to size codes in 1954, but are now way below minimum classroom sizes today – but have been ‘grandfathered in’ by the state. The fire alarm system works, but the main board is held together with duct tape; and the electrical breaker system is extremely old.

Storage at both elementary schools is woefully inadequate, as is electrical service in the classrooms, because when the schools were built, no one knew that someday individual classrooms would have computers and other electrical devices in them.

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The feasibility study and the school board have both approved the concept of moving the sixth graders back to the elementary schools; and the school board has also approved the concept of redistricting to balance the enrollment.

Which takes the school officials down to the third and final question concerning Jefferson-Craig – and that’s why the community meetings are being held.

“We’re really down to two choices,” Darin Gullion said. “Do we move the sixth graders back, redistrict, and build a new building? Or do we move the sixth graders back, redistrict, and renovate Jefferson-Craig?”

But the question beckons” are the renovations so extensive just to get Jefferson-Craig to code where it can handle students on a daily basis so much that building a new elementary school is more viable in the long run?

Compounding the matter is that the administration building has all sorts of problems, as well, having been built in the late 1800s.

“It’s held up pretty well, but there’s no fire escape for our offices on the second floor, and we have no handicap accessibility to the second floor,” Superintendent Caddell said. “There is also asbestos throughout the building, and we’ve had flooding in the basement on several occasions. On at least two occasions I’ve had to send the staff home because we didn’t have any heat in the building.”

Should a new Jefferson-Craig be built, the administrative offices could move into a portion of the current elementary school with some renovations that wouldn’t be nearly as expensive as renovating the school for student use – and some of the classrooms could also still be used by the middle school to help with overcrowding.

The school officials are also looking at what they deem as “major concerns” that need to be addressed regardless of what decision is made on Jefferson-Craig’s future.

One is the transportation issue around Jefferson-Craig. Darin Gullion said that the mixture of buses and parent vehicles moving in and out of the area around the elementary school makes it a dangerous situation for students; so they are looking at ways to divide those groups so that entering and leaving school will be more safe.

Another issue is the lunch schedule at Jefferson-Craig and the middle school. Because the two buildings share a cafeteria, primary grades at the elementary school are beginning to eat lunch just after 10 a.m.; while some middle schoolers are waiting until almost 1 p.m. to eat. Trying to find ways to feed children at more reasonable times needs to be addressed.

Other issues include storage issues at both elementary schools; the need for more classroom space; and all sorts of mechanical systems in the buildings that must be maintained or replaced.

Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels’ call for all day, everyday kindergarten in the state beginning next fall will also have space implications at both elementaries.

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Doing major renovations to Jefferson-Craig also means the relocation of the playground because of the need for space to build on. Because Jefferson-Craig is land-locked, any additional construction would have to be on the back of the building, which would move the playground further north – which would probably mean the relocation of the girls softball field.

Also at issue is the number of students at Switzerland County Middle School who walk to the high school each day for classes because of space limitations.

Tracy Caddell and Darin Gullion estimated that about 150 middle school students walk to the high school each day for a class. Although more space would probably not eliminate going to the high school for a class such as band; it would give enough space for more classes to remain in the middle school.

But all of this also comes with a cost.

Again, because no firms or architects have been hired, Tracy Caddell and Darin Gullion have studied the cost of other schools that have been built around the area in recent years; as well as those that have undergone extensive renovations. They used those figures as a guide, but admittedly projected on the high side.

– Should the school corporation decide to renovate Jefferson-Craig and move the playground, the estimated cost would be around $7.5 million.

– With renovation and the relocation of the softball and/or baseball fields, the projection is about $8 million.

– With building a new Jefferson-Craig, the projection is about $12 million.

All of this in terms of paying for it would have to be worked out, but the superintendent said that he hopes to work with the county council and the endowment corporation to find ways to use riverboat revenue sharing funds to pick up the majority of the cost to lessen the burden on the taxpayers.

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But the superintendent stresses that no decisions have been made, and that he looks forward to hearing from the community and getting their input on the different options. The school corporation will make a presentation with more of this information at each public meeting, and will be able to answer some general questions from the community about the positives and negatives of each option.