District weighs school closure options

ESCANABA — The Escanaba School Board took another step toward closing either the Upper Elementary facility or the Soo Hill school Monday night during its Committee of the Whole meeting. Escanaba Area Public Schools’ Superintendent Coby Fletcher presented the board with a paper representing the estimated number of students and sections planned for the 2019-2020 school year and two options for the 2020-2021 school year.

Reconfiguration Option One closes the Upper Elementary, splitting first through fifth grades between Lemmer and Soo Hill schools. This option would max out the capacity of both schools. Option Two closes the last neighborhood school, Soo Hill, moving all first and second graders into Lemmer and all third through fifth graders into the Upper Elementary. In both options, sixth grade would move into the Escanaba High School.

“The purpose of reconfiguration is based on the idea that what you’re doing in many buildings, you could be doing in fewer buildings, you’re probably not using your money as efficiently as you could,” said Fletcher. “Closing buildings is always tough, even discussing closing buildings is difficult … ­reconfiguration is the response to the sinking fund not passing after taking it to the public twice.”

Besides consolidation, the school board has looked at other ways the district can increase revenue. Rates to rent school facilities have been raised to reflect inflation since the late 70’s. Recently the district sold the Wells school and is considering selling other dormant properties owned by the district.

Fewer students are predicted to enroll in the district in the upcoming 2019-2020 school year. According to Fletcher this is a trend over the past 15 years and across the Upper Peninsula enrollment has gone down.

“We budgeted to be down in the neighborhood of 50 kids, and that is primarily demographics,” said Fletcher. “When we looked at our spring count we are actually on track to be down 50 students. We’ll see when fall hits.”

Under Option Two, Lemmer would house all first and second graders and the Upper Elementary would house third through fifth graders.

“When we put all the begindergarten and kindergarten teachers together they collaborated and did great things that were really just out of this world,” said Fletcher. “This would bring all of our first grade teachers together, it would bring all our second grade teachers together, third, forth and fifth grade. It was a benefit we saw.”

Fletcher said he saw more reconfiguration options going with Option Two.

Escanaba School Board Vice President Bob Chaillier asked Fletcher which school would be easier to sell, to which Fletcher responded Soo Hill. The Upper Elementary would be harder to repurpose, making it more of a challenge to sell. Chaillier continued by asking Fletcher if there would be enough room in the high school to add sixth grade.

“I would really like to know what we have space-wise up there … for our future discussions, what does it look like,” said Chaillier.

Fletcher said moving sixth grade to the high school would take the campus back to the size it was in 2013.

“Just to put that in numbers, in 2013 we were probably close to 1,160,” said Escanaba School Board President Dan Flynn. “The building was originally built for 1,200 students. There has been as many as 1,900 in the building. That was in the 1970’s; we ran two shifts — a lot of things going on under that one roof.”

Fletcher believes sixth-graders would get a better experience in junior high with more elective options available to them.

Discussions will continue regarding this issue with the idea the move would happen in the 2020-2021 school year. Different certifications may be required of the staff due to phase out of a self-contained sixth grade into a middle school model. First year reconfiguration would be in 2020-2021, with the next one to two years spent working on the transition.

School board member Jim Beauchamp questioned whether closing a school is due to the district having money problems.

“We have been able to put ourselves on stable financial footing,” said Fletcher. “We’ve been able to have fairly balanced budgets over the past few years. We did some aggressive budgeting in the 2017-2018 school year. We shaved about a million dollars off the budget … we’re looking at consolidation simply because we could then free up money … this may allow us to free up funds to better serve our kids. I also think when you get all those grade levels in one spot, the collaboration they are able to do … they just come up with amazing stuff all year long.”

Board President Dan Flynn reminded everyone of the many maintenance issues that need to be addressed sooner rather than later. The topic will be revisited in August or September.

In other business:

— The school board hired 11 additional new hires for the 2019-2020 school year.

— After a review of the bidding process, the board decided not to change the procedure.

— It was decided Fletcher, Director of Operations Amy Cseter and Director of Business Services Kevin Pascoe will look at hybrid positions in the school, such as a bus driver/maintenance position.

— The board decided to offer Pascoe a new contract for another three years after adding a $1,500 raise per year and a $3,000 annuity per year. Fletcher said Pascoe is an excellent director and just completed his CFO certification through the Michigan School of Business Association.