Final meeting held on school construction; decision now headed to school board

299

In an effort to get public input on ideas concerning the future of county schools, Superintendent Tracy Caddell and other school officials have been touring the county and holding a series of public meetings.

The last of those five meetings was held Monday night at the epicenter of the discussions - Jefferson-Craig Elementary School.

School officials have been holding the meetings to gather information to help formulate what will be a recommendation to the school board on three issues: moving the sixth grade students back from the middle school into the elementary schools; redistricting elementary enrollment boundaries to better balance the enrollments of both elementary schools; and whether to fund a large-scale renovation of Jefferson-Craig Elementary, or build a new elementary school on the west side of the high school on land that the school corporation already owns.

“Tonight I really want us to have a community conversation about the direction of our schools over the next 10-15 years,” Superintendent Caddell told Monday’s audience of about 40 people. “We want to take all of the comments and concerns that you have and take them back to the board.”

Tracy Caddell said that this entire process began approximately two years ago when a committee made up of community members met and toured all four schools as a part of the development of a feasibility study. The committee’s findings from those meetings included a recommendation to move the sixth graders back into the elementary schools and that the elementaries be renovated in order to accommodate the added enrollment.

“When the feasibility study committee made its recommendation, the state was giving ISTEP tests to students in the third, sixth, eighth, and 10th grades,” Tracy Caddell said. “Now the state is testing all grade levels; but statistics show that sixth grade students have a higher level of achievement.”

So the superintendent broke the issues down into individual categories:

– Should we move sixth graders back to the elementary schools?

The central questions here was whether or not the move would help the students show higher levels of achievement on the ISTEP tests and other testing and academic pursuits within the school. Having the sixth graders in the elementary school also results in a higher level of parental involvement, according to state and national studies. Once a student moves beyond elementary school, parental involvement in organizations like PTO and attendance at conferences and other meetings drops off, according to statistics.

Another positive of this move is that it would solve space needs at the middle school; which is already swelling past capacity to the point that it is using a classroom in Jeff-Craig; and middle school principal Nancy Stearns told the audience that approximately 100 students per day go from the middle school to the high school for some type of class. In some cases those classes are specialty classes, such as band or agriculture, where the facilities already exist.

She said that although the relocation of the sixth graders would mean more room at the middle school; because of those specialty classes, some students would probably still move during the day.

Negatives to moving the sixth graders back involve space issues at both elementary schools, issues which could intensify even more if the State of Indiana approves all day, everyday kindergarten for schools. Currently, Switzerland County kindergarten students go all day, every other day; with all students attending on Fridays.

– The second issue is closely tied to the first: Should the school board redistrict elementary boundaries?

Redistricting is a “hot topic” Tracy Caddell noted, but said that as areas such as East Enterprise grow, the balance between the enrollments at Switzerland County Elementary School and Jefferson-Craig Elementary School has widened.

If sixth graders go back to the elementary schools, then redistricting would balance the enrollments, which would move some students from SCES to Jeff-Craig. This balancing would leave enough room at SCES to handle bringing the sixth graders back into the building.

“Are we considering redistricting because we are growing? No,” the superintendent said. “Statistics say that our school corporation is growing at about 112-115 kids per year, and that’s across all grade levels. That’s 10-12 kids in each grade level corporation wide. The problem is how they are distributed.”

Tracy Caddell said that currently the SCES enrollment stands at about 460 students; while Jeff-Craig is at about 260 students. That imbalance leads to larger class sizes at SCES; but redistricting would balance both schools at about 380 students at each building once the sixth graders are moved back.

The superintendent said assured the audience that there is no “firm plan” on redistricting; but said that the corporation will go to great lengths to make the redistricting as painless as possible for the students who will be involved.

“Our focus along with balancing the enrollment will be to shorten the distance and time that our kids are on the bus,” Superintendent Caddell said.

– The final issue is what to do with Jefferson-Craig: renovate or build a new building?

“Building a new school will cost more, but the problem is that Jefferson-Craig is a 1954-model school,” the superintendent said. “The plumbing and the electrical systems and other parts of the building like the lighting are all original to the school, and something is going to have to be done.”

It was noted that most of the classrooms at Jeff-Craig are about 600 square feet in space. That was the norm in the mid-1950s when the building was constructed, but today the state requires that elementary classrooms be between 900-1,200 square feet. Although the Jeff-Craig rooms have been “grandfathered in” by the state, they are still very small for classroom activities, particularly in the upper grade levels.

Along with that, classrooms today have things such as computers and televisions and other electronics that would have never been imagined when the school was built more than 50 years ago. Most classrooms have only two or three outlets, making it difficult to take advantage of the technology.

“The type of learning that goes on today in school classrooms is much different than it was in 1954,” Tracy Caddell said.

The two choices for the school board will be to approve an extensive renovation of the current Jefferson-Craig facility; or build a new elementary school; which would probably mean that the adminstrative offices would move from the old high school – itself more than 100 years old – to offices in the old Jeff-Craig.

“We hope to upgrade to a 1954 model,” the superintendent joked.

If major renovations are undertaken, they are such that most couldn’t be done while students are in the building, which would mean that the work would have to be done over the course of several summers. With work crews having to come back over a couple of years, construction costs might prove to be high.

Renovation would also mean that middle school students would still go to the Old Gym for physical education classes because there would still be a gym-space problem with the middle school/Jeff-Craig combination. Currently, the audience was told that there are times when there are as many as three gym classes going on in the Jeff-Craig gym at one time.

Transportation costs for moving middle school students to the Old Gym for physical education run between $6,000-$8,000 per year.

Renovating Jeff-Craig and adding classrooms would also mean the moving of the high school softball field in order to create enough space for the new addition as well as moving the playground to the north. With the lights and other items, it is estimated that moving the softball field would cost approximately $400,000.

Building a new school would solve many of the problems facing the school corporation, but it is going to cost more than the renovation option. That could mean a debt service impact on county property owners, but it was noted that all of the school’s debt service is currently being paid by the Switzerland County School Endowment Corporation.

If a new school is built – or if renovations are made – there is no guarantee that some of the debt will not be added to property taxes.

“We would hope to work with the county council and the endowment corporation to make all of this as painless as possible,” the superintendent said. “It could be covered by the endowment, or we could use a combination where we put a small amount on the tax rate so it would be paid off more quickly. Again, we haven’t made any decisions because we want to hear from the community. We are just considering different plans at this point.”

*

So the audience was brought to three basic options: (1) Move sixth graders back/redistrict/renovate Jefferson-Craig; (2) Move sixth graders back/redistrict/renovate Jefferson-Craig/move the softball field; and (3) Move sixth graders back/redistrict/build a new Jefferson-Craig.

A fourth option, which was presented by community member Kenny Briggs at the Moorefield meeting and echoed by others at the Patriot meeting, would be to use the current middle school as an expanded Jefferson-Craig and build a wing on the high school that would house seventh and eighth grades, but would keep them separate from the high school students.

“It’s something that we need to look at, but because the idea came as a part of these meetings, we haven’t had the time to do cost figures on that idea,” Tracy Caddell said. “We will have figures on this before the matter goes to the school board so that they can consider it.”

– Option 1 is estimated to cost $7.5 million to complete; which could have a tax impact of about 15-cents.

– Option 2 is estimated to cost $7.9 million to complete; which could have a tax impact of about 16-cents.

– Option 3 is estimated to cost $12.2 million to complete; which could have a tax impact of about 24-cents.

Tracy Caddell said that all of these estimates were done “high” as to not hold any surprises; and were also figured on a county assessed valuation of $388 million. It was noted that the state feels that the county’s assessed valuation for this year will exceed $400 million, but until that it made official, no one wants to use that figure.

“The higher the assessed valuation, the lower the tax impact,” the superintendent said.

All of this information is available for public inspection at the administrative offices of the school corporation; and the superintendent and other school officials will now put all of this information together and present it to the school board along with recommendations.