WABASH COUNTY, Ind. (WANE) In a sweeping and controversial move, the Metropolitan School District of Wabash County will merge its two high schools – Southwood and Northfield – in 2017 as it struggles with shrinking enrollment.
The district’s 5-member board voted unanimously Tuesday night to establish Northfield as the district’s lone high school and integrate students from both Southwood and Northfield high school, there. In the reconfiguration, which will begin the 2017-2018 school year, the Southwood High School building will become the district’s junior high school and serve fifth- through eighth-grade students. The district will also close Sharp Creek Elementary School and use Metro North and Southwood elementary schools to school kindergarten through fourth-grade students.
The district’s overhaul is a response to dwindling enrollment numbers that led to inefficient operations, officials told NewsChannel 15.
“For the genesis of it, you’ve really got to step back a little bit,” said Board Vice President John Gouveia. “Declining enrollment has been a consistent, persistent problem for our school district. You have to be forward-looking and know that this declining enrollment problem isn’t necessarily going away, so we looked at the efficiency of how the school system was being run.”
Gouveia said the board learned that 51 of the district’s high school classes had 10 or less students in them. He said while that teacher-to-student ratio was exemplary, the board felt that made for an inefficient schooling operation.
Combining the two high schools will allow the district to offer more education opportunities – “better, more robust” ones, Gouveia said.
“This will allow us to bring that population base at the Senior High to a level now that we can actually bring in more programming and actually do things that we haven’t necessarily done in the past or do them better than how we had been doing them,” Gouveia said.
Another impact will be teacher cuts, however. Both Gouveia and District Superintendent Mike Keaffaber, who has been on the job only since July 1, said the district expects to lose teachers in the merger, though neither could say just how many that would be. Gouveia said one “model” has shown, though, that district could save upwards of $800,000 without those salaries on the books.
While the district is not financially wounded (Gouveia said the board has handled its budget from $600,000 in the hole to now $500,000 in the black), those additional funds can and will be used to enhance the student experience.
“When you talk about saving $800,000, that’s real money that we can put back into other things and other programming,” said Gouveia. “We need to look at sustainability.”
The board’s decision Tuesday night was not met with overwhelming support. Media reports from the meeting told a story of teachers who felt the decision came in “secret” and was a surprise. The discussion was not listed on the board’s agenda, but rather added by Gouveia at the start of the meeting.
Gouveia said every board member was aware of the planned discussion prior to the meeting, but the decision to bring it up was made after the agenda was published, as required by state law. Boards are permitted to add agenda items if approved at the start of those meetings.
Gouveia said the board had discussed the district’s enrollment and fiscal state at numerous public meetings beforehand. It had also discussed options including requesting a taxpayer referendum or consolidating with a nearby school district.
Keaffaber said the vote was not meant to be secretive, but with students in mind.
“We are wanting this to be for the best for our students,” the superintendent said. “This will allow teachers to have more laser focus. We really think that this is going to be exciting. We just have to get through all of the emotions and begin the process.”
High school students from around the county will now be bused to Northfield, which sits on the northeast edge of the city of Wabash, some 9.8 miles from Southwood. Keaffaber said the district has not yet figured out the logistics of student transportation.
Keaffaber said the district has sent out an alert to its teachers to notify them of the reconfiguration. He said he plans to hold meetings with staff to learn and answer their questions. Gouveia said public forums will also be held to discuss the changes with parents and students.
Both men acknowledged that the closure of schools can be emotional for members of the community. Both men acknowledged, though, that it was the right business decision.
It’s a very hard thing, but the Band-Aid’s ripped off,” said Gouveia. “It’s out there, and this is what we made a decision to do.
“There’s never the wrong time to do the right thing.”