Superintendents share support for district consolidation, NOT school consolidation

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Editor’s note: This column co-written by superintendents of Western Wayne, Northeastern and Nettle Creek school districts appeared a few weeks ago in our newspapers.
It is being shared again before upcoming community meetings taking place 6 p.m. Sept. 12 at Lincoln High School and 6 p.m. Sept. 17 at Northeastern High School.
The meeting at Hagerstown High School has been canceled after the Nettle Creek board voted recently to discontinue being part of the discussion.
All area residents are invited to either meeting.

By George Philhower, Laura Blessing and John Williams

Indiana school districts are charged to provide the children within their schools the best possible education. To this end, elected school boards and school leaders must always be forward-thinking in providing what is best for children now and in the future.

Taking a forward thinking approach, leadership from three school districts in Wayne County met on Thursday, July 18, 2019, at 4:30 at Western Wayne School’s administration building to discuss what challenges three local school districts are currently facing as well as future challenges.

Two board members from Western Wayne and Northeastern Wayne and three board members from Nettle Creek as well as the three superintendents from these districts were in attendance. Senator Jeff Raatz was also in attendance.

In a discussion of current and future challenges, many topics were discussed revolving around potential reorganization of the administration within these districts. From the onset of the discussion, it was clear that maintaining community identity would be a top priority if this option were pursued. All existing schools within the three districts would remain open and operate under the same names. The Tigers would still be the Tigers, the Eagles would still be the Eagles, and the Knights would still be the Knights.

During the July 18th meeting, one item that was discussed was that reorganization could be an opportunity to expand courses and programs offered for students. The advantage of a larger school or district is that there are typically more options for students (especially at the high school level) in terms of course offerings. The group also understands the many advantages of smaller school communities. This change would allow the unified district a unique opportunity to provide students with large school opportunities while maintaining a small school environment.

The discussion turned to the actions state legislators have taken and are taking in enacting laws affecting schools. These laws generally provide little flexibility in their implementation. The thought was shared that local actions now and in the near future need to be considered before there are legislative mandates which allow little flexibility in operating smaller school corporations.

Some were wondering if this would be a good financial opportunity for our school districts. Naturally, by combining resources, districts would be able to eliminate redundant processes and programming which would allow positions to be more focused and specialized. Additionally, a larger district would also likely be able to leverage its larger size for savings on items and services.

Senator Raatz reported that funds were available, thanks to a bill that he wrote, that would help with this process. As can be imagined, while there are long-term savings available, there would be considerable costs to see this process through (legal fees, marketing/branding, and so on). If this process is pursued, the district would be eligible for $250 per student, which is a considerable amount of money considering the newly formed district size would be approximately 3,300 students.

While several of those present stated that they have been approached by community members who have asked why these conversations were not already taking place, they also know that there may also be some who may not be in favor of this type of reorganization. All leaders present at the July 18th meeting know that this is a topic that would require careful consideration after much discussion. The purpose of this meeting was to determine if further discussions should be held.

The three boards plan to discuss district consolidation with their entire boards at their next scheduled meetings. A follow-up meeting has been set for August 22nd. If this process is going to be further discussed, community meetings would be scheduled to gather public opinion about this topic as well as to document any concerns or considerations that community members may have.

Below are points of clarity regarding this process.
● Three districts (Nettle Creek, Northeastern Wayne, and Western Wayne) would merge into one district office (Officially/Legally, “consolidation” may end up being the appropriate word.)
● Each school building would remain intact and would continue to operate at full capacity.
● One school board would govern the entire district.
● The school district would operate within one budget.
● District size would be approximately 3,300 students
● Goals for this change would be:
○ Increased opportunities for students in the greater Wayne County area.
○ Financial savings and efficiency- As we combine resources we would be able to eliminate redundant processes and programming. We would also likely be able to leverage our size for savings on items and services.
○ Increased enrollment in the district (formerly 3) and stabilization of population decline in the greater Wayne County area- As we increase quality opportunities for students, we would attract attention. An eventual goal would be to provide an education that is so appealing that people want to move to the area to attend school in our district.
○ Shared resources and learning- Activities that happen during the school day should not be competitive events. The goal is to provide the highest quality education for each child and make sure they leave us on a path towards employment and productivity. Each district is approaching this in a slightly different way. A joint strategic plan would allow us to learn from one another. As a result, all students would benefit, as would our community.