INDIANA: Schools superintendent recommends elementary grade realignment
October 15, 2013 10:59 AM
by SAM KUSIC

Indiana Area School District Superintendent Dale Kirsch is recommending that the school district reconfigure its four elementary schools rather than close one and send the fifth-graders to the junior high school.

Kirsch made the recommendation during a school board meeting Monday, suggesting that the school board narrow its focus to two specific scenarios.

One, he said, is to send kindergartners to third-graders to Ben Franklin and East Pike elementary schools and send fourth- and fifth-graders to the other two schools, Eisenhower and Horace Mann.

The second scenario is to effectively spread three schools over four buildings, leaving Ben Franklin and East Pike as is and making Eisenhower and Horace Mann sister schools. As sister schools, Eisenhower would be for kindergarteners, first- and second-graders, and Horace Mann would be for third- to fifth-graders.

The reconfiguration plan is under consideration as the district looks to reduce its budget by $1.2 million for next year. Kirsch said district has made some progress toward that goal, eliminating $175,000 in spending in this year’s budget. But the savings has been lost to increased staff costs, he said.

Kirsch’s recommendations follow an academic committee meeting earlier this month, when it reviewed numerous possibilities. Kirsch said the majority of district residents who attended the meeting seemed to favor closing an elementary school over reconfiguring them and were opposed to moving fifth-graders to the junior high.

Kirsch, however, said that if the school directors decide to close one of the elementary schools, they will have to add 10 classrooms elsewhere to allow for possible growth and enrollment fluctuations between schools, and to achieve a 90 percent capacity utilization, a measure of efficiency.

Adding classrooms would cost around $3 million, and using the cost savings from a school closing to pay for it does little to help the district reach its budget goal, Kirsch said.

Of course, the district could raise property taxes. And, in fact, one parent who spoke up at the meeting pushed for just that.

“I am willing to pay the price,” said Scott Weigner, of Indiana Borough’s Second Ward. Weigner said the district’s current setup is one of the reasons he and his family chose to move there.

But Kirsch said raising taxes would be a burden to the community and is an uncertain funding plan because the district would have to increase taxes above the ceiling set by the state, requiring a voter referendum. But if the board goes that route, it still will have to plan for a reconfiguration as a cost-savings measure for next year, as the referendum would occur on May 20.

Districts are required to adopt a budget by June 30.

The board is set to vote on its course of action at a meeting on Oct. 28. The board hasn’t yet said which route it intends to take, but board President Tom Harley seems to be leaning toward reconfiguration over consolidation.

Reading from a prepared statement at Monday’s meeting, Harley said it is imperative that the district make better use of its staff and lower class sizes so that by the time students enter third grade, they are reading at grade level.

“Grade realignment may provide us just such an opportunity,” he said.

But he said his support for reconfiguration is conditional.

“I am only interested in the grade realignment if it would allow us to actually lower the class-size guidelines while hiring the proper support staff, enabling us to reach every child,” he said.

Harley also spoke about revising graduation requirements, another aspect of the district’s attempt to reduce costs. Revising the graduation requirements is part of a package of curriculum changes the board is to consider in November, after it has voted on the elementary school reconfiguration plan.

“Programs that are no longer justifiable for the 21st century must be eliminated. Coursework that doesn’t demand excellence or does not enable our students to achieve that excellence must be rewritten or eliminated,” Harley said.

In other matters, the board approved a so-called bring-your-own-device policy allowing high school seniors to use their own Internet-connected devices — smartphones excluded — in the senior caf´┐ę. Previously, all students were banned from connecting to the Internet with any device not issued by the school district as a safety precaution. But the district is changing the policy as it experiments with allowing students to bring their own devices to school and to connect those devices to the Internet through the district’s network.

The board approved the policy change on a 7-1 vote, with Rob Werner dissenting.

Werner said he worries that students could very easily bypass the district’s network, where there are controls and filters in place on the content students can view, and connect directly to the Internet.

Also Monday night, the board promoted part-time elementary teacher Kristine Cook to a full-time position at Eisenhower Elementary, setting her annual salary at $64,313. The district created the part-time position at the beginning of the year to help out with what turned out to be a large class. As the year has progressed, the class has grown even larger, so the district decided to make the position full time. Owing to her past experience, Cook is starting out on the third step of the salary scale under the teachers’ union labor contract.

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