South Bend council walking away from school closures… for now

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SOUTH CURVE ⁠— south elbow facility planners are turning their attention away from closing and consolidating schools – at least for now.

Educational planning consultant Tracy Richter of HPM presented her first recommendations to the South Bend School Board at a meeting on Wednesday evening.

His initial priorities include new construction of a regional career center and investments in Washington High School’s medical magnet program.

Any further discussion of school closures or consolidation would wait until at least the fall after planning teams are able to better assess the district’s school feeding models from elementary schools.

“We don’t think our plan is ready for that yet,” Richter said of possible school closures. “We don’t feel like we’ve aligned programs with geographic feeding patterns.”

The discussion comes as schools in South Bend grapple with an enrollment change. The district has lost more than 10,000 students since 2007 and expects to see enrollment decline by nearly 1,000 more students by the 2026-27 school year, according to district projections. Only one of the district’s four secondary schools is close to full capacity.

Richter’s Monday night recommendations come after months of work to explore the district’s facility needs at the middle and high school level — a step some community members say should only go hand in hand with exploring how whose elementary school curricula align with middle-level academics.

Past ideas raised during the facilities planning process – including one to turn Clay High School into a career center or sports complex and house some students in grades 6-12 in the Clay International Academy building – were also strongly pushed back by parents and community members.

Many also expressed frustration about buses, magnet programs and open enrollment at district schools, sometimes sending students across town for programs farther from home.

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“There is a square footage issue,” Richter said, referring to the amount of underutilized space in the district. “And trying to (the right size) smartly is going to take a deeper dive into how elementary schools are going to feed into middle school and how they’re going to feed into high schools.”

First proposed investments

Richter is now proposing that the district spend some of the remaining money from the district’s $54 million capitol referendum to address deferred maintenance and strengthen programs within Washington High School.

A $5 million to $6 million investment could bring the school larger labs and more “student-centered spaces,” Richter said.

The consultant did not give an estimate Wednesday night of the cost of building a new career center and did not specify where the district might look to build it other than at “a central location.” Planners have said at several public meetings that they are working with a budget of around $35 million.

Neither Richter nor Kareemah Fowler, the district’s assistant superintendent of business and finance, was available to answer questions directly after the council meeting.

Superintendent Todd Cummings said plans are preliminary and the district will consider the continued effect of inflation and potential community partnerships before determining the cost of a career center project.

Board secretary Stephanie Ball said she supports investments in Washington, where she said she feels the school’s medical magnet program has weakened over time, as similar classes were introduced in other schools in South Bend.

“When we are able to realign and bring all of these programs together under one roof and improve facilities that make it state of the art…it can strengthen the medical magnet program as it should,” Ball said. “This may attract more students to this medical program, which can potentially lead to increased enrollment there.”

However, board member Oletha Jones asked the facilities planning team to speak more transparently about how the proposals will advance student equity. She also expressed concern that a regional career center could create competition between existing high school programs.

“We’re tired of seeing things on paper,” Jones told the district consultant. “You talked about inequities, but we need to move beyond talk and into action.”

Next steps in planning

No board action was taken on the facilities at Wednesday’s meeting, and Richter presented his recommendations to the school board for presentation only.

A board vote on Washington investments and a new career center could take place in the fall. And, while Richter made it clear he was not recommending any immediate school closures, Cummings said further recommendations would likely come after further consideration of community feedback.

The recommendations made on Wednesday were part of the first stage of planning that should continue over the next school year and consider both short-term investments to be made within five years and “more visionary” projects to be tackled in the next school year. the next six to 10 years. years.

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To better combat the loss of longtime students, Richter said planners will work with updated enrollment data this fall and focus their attention on elementary and middle school feeding patterns.

The consultant said community meetings will likely be scheduled in September in specific neighborhoods to gather input at the elementary level. The facilities planning team is currently sifting through more than 300 pages of feedback from a survey released this spring, Richter said.

A community task force made up of more than two dozen invited city officials, business leaders, and members of the faith and arts communities met several times behind closed doors and once in public this spring after The Tribune sought advice from state officials on whether those committees should meet in public. That working group will meet again in August, September and October, Richter said Wednesday, and additional updates will be provided to the school board during that time.

The facilities recommendations also come as district leaders come under increasing scrutiny from community members who have expressed frustration with a growing list of changes in recent capital transfers and retention challenges for outsourced earthworks and maintenanceand rrenewed relationships with local police.

One parent, Allison Mynsberge, expressed frustration with recent miscommunications, asking administrators to bring parents into the conversation with honest assessments of what the district is doing well and what it needs to improve.

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“When you come up with an innovative idea like combining the grades, let us know you have the ability to do it the right way,” Mynsberge said, addressing the board and superintendent. “When your consultants suggest changing power patterns, share the documents, detailing and analyzing current power patterns in the district. When you suggest building a new facility as we close schools, explain why our many Existing underutilized facilities will not suffice.”

“If we can’t build trust within the district by solving the easy problems and mastering the tough ones, we have no chance of building trust with all those families and community members who have let go of the South Bend schools.”

Email Carley Lanich, education reporter for the South Bend Tribune, at clanich@gannett.com. Follow her on Twitter: @carleylanich.

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