The South Bend Community School Corporation held a listening forum yesterday where residents had an opportunity to give feedback to school leaders about the proposed Focus 2018 school plan.
Focus 2018 aims to address enrollment drops and funding cuts by changing school start times, moving fifth grade classes back into elementary schools and closing three schools. The plan would repurpose three other schools in the district, using a school as a K-8 full district magnet school.
While many parents praised the work of the administration and Superintendent Dr. Kenneth Spells, they expressed frustration with district changes and the closing and repurposing of schools. Some parents agreed with some of the changes being proposed, most notably moving fifth graders back to elementary schools, thus creating middle schools again instead of intermediate schools.
The most disagreed on topic throughout the night was the Perley School repurposing. Many parents said the feeling of community and the feeling of a small school makes Perley ideal for their students. The overall sentiment was disapproval of pulling students out of current schools, as well as the timeline of the proposed changes, when parents are currently trying to enroll students into magnet programs.
Parents threatened to pull their students who from the school system and send them to parochial or charter schools if the proposed district changes were approved.
With fewer schools to operate, South Bend Schools said that utility and insurance costs would save money for the school system. School Board President Jeff Wruble said costs overall would be cut. He said with less schools, there's less transportation costs too. Wruble said that by combining schools, the corporation will also be able to save money by using teachers to more efficiently.
"By reducing the number of schools, we'll reduce the number of teachers we need. We will be balancing [classes] out. Currently, we have teachers that have twelve, thirteen, fourteen kids in a class and others that have larger numbers. By redistricting and redistributing the students, we'll have a more even number," Wruble said.
School start times are were readjusted in hopes of streamlining transportation with staggered start times, as well as adopting later start times for teens based on brain development studies. The middle school would have the latest start time from 9-4 pm. Parents were concerned with safety issues, such as getting kids to and from school.
Parents against the changes said they feel the proposal is rushed and are concerned their kids will suffer socially and academically.
Local NAACP branch representative Oletha Jones said the branch opposes the plan as they did fifteen years ago because of the school of choice policy. Jones said the policy as is proposed would segregate the schools.
“It has provided a private school system within a public school system,” she said, It gives the educators and the businessmen the opportunity to decide what kind of education the children will have, who will have the best, and who will have the mediocre.”
Jones asked if the new plans would lift the strict requirements to allow students to attend any school their parents choose. The fear of further school segregation was a topic other parents brought up as well.
“I want people who worry about African American kids, and give them a quality education,” one parent said, “I’m tired of politics. This is a done deal, so don’t tell me that, ‘We’re just listening to you tonight and maybe we’ll change our mind.’”
Other parents also suggested the School Board had already decided vote in favor of the plan.
Wruble said a decision about the plan hasn’t been made until all the data has been looked over. He said the the plan can be passed as it is, passed with some changes, or not passed at all.
“As far as giving the public a month to digest and comment on the plan,” Wruble said, “I think in this day and age with the internet, with social media, with the immense outreach that Dr. Spells and the administration and board members have done, we’ve given this plan a lot of thought and have given the public plenty of opportunity to give us input.”
Wruble said the school board can’t afford to postpone the vote.
“The time to act is now, we can’t really afford to wait another year,” Wruble said, “We know we need to have a lot of changes in our school corporation to make us competitive for the next fifteen years and beyond.”
Wruble said any time there changes happen, there will always be people who aren't happy with some of the changes. He said the plan will make the School Corporation competitive with other schools.
President of the South Bend Regional Chamber Jeff Rea, whose kids attended South Bend Schools, applauded the Focus 2018. He said the school was doing the right thing by looking for ways to cut spending when the school system is ready to face the 2020 property tax caps that will affect how much money the school will garner.
The school board will vote on December 18th. If the plan is approved, it will be reviewed by the U.S. Department of Justice, which has to ensure the new district maps are in compliance with government school desegregation rules.
Wruble said that in order to formulate the Focus 2018 plan, the South Bend School Corporation hired a demographer and consultants to best assess students' needs.