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Enrollment drop hasn’t changed school plan

September 18, 2010
There have been four high schools in the Warren County School District since Tidioute High School was closed in 2003, and the school board has set its feet upon a path that maintains those schools for the foreseeable future. The decision-makers were well aware of the district’s steady decline in enrollment, but that trend was not considered cause to consolidate when the members voted to keep the four high schools open in December. The economics, according to the nationally-renowned firm running the studies, were pretty even for keeping four high schools or consolidating to two. That firm, DeJong Inc. (now DeJong-Richter), compared the educational benefits of two and four schools and called that factor a wash, too. Declining enrollment was a fact at the time the board made the decision and a continuing decline was projected by DeJong. So, the board does not consider third-day enrollment statistics that show the district lost another 3.5 percent (184 students) of its population this year as a reason to revisit that decision. A list of questions related to enrollment, expenses, and the right number of high schools for the district was emailed to each board member on Sept. 8. Two board members, Kim Angove and board President Art Stewart, responded. Stewart said he is charged with “speaking on behalf of the board on votes taken by it.” He said declining enrollment is nothing new to the district. “The district has been discussing potential consolidation for twenty years,” Stewart said. “Shrinking enrollment was a fact twenty years ago and it remains a fact today. That shrinking enrollment was discussed extensively in the DeJong process.” The loss of student population was particularly precipitous this year, with a drop that exceeds the total of the previous two years combined. The district lost 78 students in 2009-2010 and 92 in the 2008-2009 school year. “That this year’s actual enrollment numbers may differ from those projections is not surprising,” he said. “When Dr. DeJong discussed enrollment numbers he was careful to note that actual enrollments go up and down and that projections will not reflect those year to year vagaries. “ When DeJong Inc. studied the possibilities for the district, conducted public hearings and facilitated a steering committee made up of local parents, educators, business leaders and others, money was a major component of the considerations. “The dollars were discussed extensively as part of the votes already taken,” Stewart said. “When, however, you link the dollars questions to the enrollment numbers I want to ensure that an important fact is not overlooked,” he said. “Significant dollars are going to be expended regardless of the enrollment numbers and regardless of the number of high schools.” “I don’t believe there is any disagreement about whether maintenance has been long deferred at many of our schools and whether critical systems (heating, electrical, etc.) have outlived their useful life,” he said. “Whether we maintain four high schools or consolidate to fewer, all options under examination involved the expenditure of tens of millions (of dollars) in order to have buildings that will serve us for the coming decades.” Eisenhower High School has consistently been labeled by board members as the high school that has been deferred most and for the longest time. At its meeting earlier this month, the board took a large step toward completing one of the top priority items on its master facilities plan by unanimously approving specifications for a $19 million renovation project at the school. The renovation plan adds square feet to the school, which has lost 40 percent of its student population since the 1997-1998 school year. “There were many questions of the architects to understand exactly what the plan and layout will be,” Angove said. “While the ed spec was approved... at the regular board meeting, the specifics regarding the size of the building and how many students it will accommodate is supposed to be reviewed at PP&F (physical plant and facilities committee) in a couple weeks.” “It is my understanding that some of the increased space being proposed is not classroom space, but space for areas such as an auxiliary gym and an additional music room,” she said. In May, the board unanimously approved a master facilities plan that calls for, among other things, renovations to Warren Area High School and turning Sheffield Area Middle High School into a K-12 building. The plan carried a price tag of $71 million. “In his remarks at Warren Area High School last year the superintendent (Dr. Robert Terrill) observed that there was little monetary difference between the net results of the four high school model on the one hand and the consolidated high school models on the other,” Stewart said. For now, there is no talk of calling for a new vote on the high schools issue, but that option remains open. “The board has the ability to modify the four high school model (now encompassed in the Master Facilities Plan) just as it has the ability to modify other past actions,” Stewart said. “Board members are free to bring motions to the table that would modify existing plans. I am involved in the planning of future agendas and I am unaware of any intention to revisit the four high school model or any established time frame for doing so.” Angove expects the matter could come up again after the next election. “I personally have not heard any current board members discuss re-opening this decision,” she said. “If history repeats itself there is no doubt in my mind that this situation will resurface down the road.” “The elections are coming up and in the past this situation has been influential in the turnover of board members,” Angove said. “If that is the case in the next election, it is in my opinion that it is likely that at least portions of the issues involved in the number of high schools discussion will be brought back to the table.” None of the district’s four high schools are close to their highest historic enrollments. There’s plenty of space in case the population trend turns around. “While I believe we (the community) would all like to see a rebound of the population, the reality is, it is unlikely this will happen,” Angove said. “I hope that as a county we will be able to make changes and improvements that increase our population but I do believe we have to plan according to the trend of the last twenty years.” “I would welcome the problem of dealing with a population boom in the future and I know there are many community members in Warren County working to help that happen,” she said. “While on one hand I am truly optimistic for the future we also have to be realistic that a population boom is not likely to happen anytime soon.”


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