Sara Swanson

School District to vote on building consolidation

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Last Monday at its regularly scheduled monthly meeting, the Manchester Community Schools Board of Education revisited one of last year’s more contentious topics–building consolidation. This time around, the board was presented with fewer options, more research, and the stark reality that in order to prevent a negative fund balance (which would likely lead to a state assigned emergency manager) projected to occur as early as the 2020/2021 school year, either a building goes or staff layoffs will have to happen. Because building reorganization could affect next year’s high school class scheduling, this decision has to be made at or before the next board meeting.

“If the recent enrollment declines continue within the next three to five years, there is a realistic risk to the survival of the district,” the board and attendees were told last Monday by Superintendent Cherie Vannatter. The school receives a set amount of state funding for each student enrolled. Because of decreased enrollment in the district attributed to low county-wide birth rates beginning in 2008, the schools receive less money from the state than it costs to keep the district operating as it currently does. While the schools still have a positive fund balance, projections (which take into account both the recently announced staff retirements and the $100 increase per student the state is proposing) still have Manchester dropping below a 5% balance by the 2018/2019 school year.

This benchmark will trigger “increased scrutiny” by the state and require a deficit elimination plan. With no changes, this leads to a negative fund balance two years later, putting the district at risk of having the state assign an emergency manager which, as Vannatter pointed out, comes from the Treasury Department, not the Department of Education. While the emergency manager may make building consolidation changes or staffing changes, the unstated fear is that Manchester Community Schools would be consolidated with a neighboring district. At a little over 6% of the fund balance currently, the district has already received a letter from the state, letting them know that the state knows how close they are to 5%.

This year the High School will be graduating 95 seniors while Klager has 47 kindergartners. This disparity between outgoing and incoming class sizes for the last four years has created an excess capacity in the school’s buildings. The school’s four buildings can house 2,310 students total (including 330 at Ackerson that cannot be K-12 students without building upgrades). This year, Manchester had less than half–981 students–utilizing only 42.4% of the buildings’ capacity. Next year, enrollment is projected to drop to 951 students. Vannatter explained that typically districts with less than 1,000 students use two buildings. “Once you get below 1,000, you can’t maintain this many buildings,” she stated. There is a large cost to maintaining this significant excess capacity, the board was advised.

Last year, a large committee made up of representatives from the schools, the board, parents, and community members evaluated building usage, came up with many options, and ultimately recommended closing the Ackerson building which currently houses the central administration, the pre-K program, and rental space. At the time the board decided against closing Ackerson, but the committee recommended re-evaluating building usage each year. This year evaluations and recommendations were carried out by the superintendent and administrators. At last week’s meeting, the board was presented with three options. The first two options are to close the Ackerson Building, differing in whether the pre-school play structure is moved or a new one is purchased, move the pre-K program to Klager Elementary, and move central administration to one of the other two buildings.

The third option is to move the 5th & 6th graders to Klager, move the 7th & 8th graders to the high school, and re-purpose the middle school building. This option would allow the district to move from three to two principals and decrease the secretarial staff as well as saving on building expenses. The middle school building would be kept open and used for sports and as a testing site. This would technically keep the building in use by students so that if needed in the future, students could be moved back in without expensive work to bring it up to current code. Because Ackerson is the least expensive building to operate, closing Ackerson pushes off falling below 5% one year but still has the district reaching a negative fund balance by 2020/2021. Re-purposing the Middle school, the second most expensive building, pushes off falling below 5% until 2020/2021 and is projected to keep the balance from dropping into negative numbers until into 2022/2023.

Discussion of closing either building raised many concerns in the community last year. This time, administrators worked beforehand to be able to present plans that would minimize concerns and highlight the positive effects of the two plans. Closing Ackerson would mean the loss of rental income from the Community Resource Center and Co-op Preschool who currently rent space from the district in that building, but it would mean minimal change for K-12 students. The move of 5th graders to Klager means families could have the option of self-contained classrooms once again (traditional for 5th graders), while a middle school schedule and curriculum could be maintained for the 6th graders at Klager. Band would still be offered for both grades. One downside mentioned would be that Passion Projects at Klager would lose a dedicated staff person.

The largest concern voiced both by parents and the board was the sharing of the high school building by 7th & 8th graders and high schoolers. After researching middle school and high school consolidation in other districts, a plan has been created to minimize contact between the different age groups during “unstructured” time. This would be done by holding separate lunch times, staggered start and end times, having the younger students enter and exist the building around back, and much like the 5th graders at the middle school, having a dedicated hallway.

New to the discussion this year were the benefits that building consolidation could bring in addition to no teacher lay-offs, maintaining small class sizes, and preventing an outside emergency manager from coming in. Closing Ackerson would mean easier transition for pre-schoolers to kindergarten. Or, if the middle school was re-purposed, STEM classes could be expanded down to lower grades and the Middle School counselor would spend part of the time at Klager, which has no counselor now. The most benefits discussed would affect the 7th & 8th graders. These would include more variety in electives, more opportunities for advanced students to take high school classes, the opportunity for students to begin working on graduation requirements earlier, ability for 7th & 8th graders to take part in the high school drama program, and mentoring opportunities for the older students. Vannatter noted that in other districts who have done this, they’ve seen a drop in 9th graders failing, presumably as it eases the transition to high school.

Mary Fielder, a second grade teacher at Klager, was in attendance and spoke during public comments. She took time to reaffirm her faith in the school board to do what was best for the district and the students. She also addressed worried parents to remind them that the students aren’t going to go through any changes alone, that they will have the teachers and the rest of the staff with them, just as they do now. She stated, “At this time, our community, as well as most of the State of Michigan, has experienced a change in demographics. We are experiencing a shift in population which greatly affects the population of our schools. While this discussion of closing a building/moving students can sound like a drastic change, there is one CONSTANT in all of this. The CONSTANT is the staff, faculty and administration will take good care of all of the students to the best of our ability. While we are experiencing the same anxiousness as others involved please know that we keep the students in our main focus. We will be there for ALL students.”

Vanatter confirmed that 85% of the budget is staff. Meeting attendees were reminded that if expenses are not cut through building consolidation, there will be lay-offs, which in addition to hurting teachers will increase class sizes. School Board president Chris Fegan worried that increasing class sizes would hurt School of Choice numbers and cited small class sizes as a draw for the district. Near the end of the meeting, school board member Dara Psarouthakis asked directly, “Closing buildings will preserve staff?” To which Superintendent Vanatter replied, “Yes.” Psarouthakis asked, “One or the other has to be done?” And Vanatter replied, “Yes.”

The school board will vote on building consolidation at the next School Board meeting scheduled for May 15th at 6 pm, or possibly at a special school board meeting before then.

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