HAS board members voted to clo...
HOLLY, Michigan – It was just two years ago that astronomical budget cuts caused members of the Holly Area Schools Board of Education to make the tough decision to close the doors of Sherman Middle School – a move that they said saved the district $345,000 at the time.
As a result, seventh and eighth grade students were transferred to classrooms on the Karl Richter Campus (KRC), while elementary schools expanded to house the district’s sixth graders.
In 2011, the district paid approximately $130,000 to move students, technology and equipment into the various buildings, Assistant Superintendent of Administration, Steve Lenar said.
Pete Deahl thinks it's time to...
On Monday, newly elected Trustee Pete Deahl made a pitch to fellow board members as to why he feels the district should undo what’s already been done, and reopen Sherman Middle School.
Deahl used the board’s rules as a framework for his presentation, breaking it into the areas of increasing student achievement, improving the district’s financial status, increasing student enrollment and improving parent involvement.
“Mr. (Dave) Nuss has given the board several reports regarding academic achievement and testing, and the results have been mixed at best,” Deahl said, referencing Nuss’ initiative and vision in creating positive momentum within the district.
“Looking at this, it seems that we will need greater flexibility at the elementary level and that assessing the middle school would be beneficial.” Deahl said placing the sixth, seventh and eighth grade students together in one building again would create a cohesive atmosphere for students, and allow the teachers to better collaborate and implement Nuss’ vision.
Improving financial status
Deahl acknowledged that the school district’s revenues are based largely on student enrollment. “The board chose implementing cuts as a means to balance the budget,” he said. “There was the hope that closing Sherman Middle School would right-size the district, and save much-needed cash.”
Using the $345,000 figure as a baseline for savings realized in closing Sherman Middle School, Deahl asked a question. “My question is did we really save $345,000 or in the alternative, did it cost us more in student enrollment dollars than the projected savings?”
Deahl said the initial projection in 2011 was that HAS would lose approximately 87 students as a result of closing Sherman Middle School.
“The actual loss of students was 296 which as you can see, is 209 students over what was projected,” he said adding that the bigger loss of students could have resulted from the uncertainty parents felt over the possible closing of an elementary school, or the loss of students from the middle school.
“Any way you slice it, it was a negative impact on our enrollment,” he said. “Looking at the math and using the $6,800 per pupil number, we see if we held it to our projected loss, it would have cost us $591,000.” Deahl said the additional loss of 209 students left the district with an additional loss of about $1.4 million, or just over $2 million in total.
“Essentially, we lost more kids than we projected, and consequently, the funding that goes along with them,” he said. Factoring the $345,000 saved in closing Sherman Middle School into the equation still left the district with a loss of about $1.6 million, Deahl said.
Was the economy to blame for declining enrollment?
While Deahl said he didn’t doubt that Michigan’s struggling economy played a part in declining enrollment, he wondered how much of a factor it truly was.
“I looked at some of the neighboring districts to see how they fared and while they did have some losses, their numbers did not approach the number of students we lost,” he said.
Deahl said he was particularly interested in seeing that Holly Academy actually increased enrollment. “The academy actually grew substantially in the same (economic) climate,” he said.
Since 2009, Deahl said Holly Area Schools have lost a total of 263 students, a decrease of $1.78 million in funding, while neighboring charter school, Holly Academy, has added 102 students, an increase in revenue of $693,000.
“Looking at the data from a broad or narrow point of view, one has to wonder how much the economy affected enrollment when the academy which draws primarily residents from our district didn’t show a loss, but an increase,” he said. “We have to consider other factors as the drivers to our continued declining enrollment.”
What about KRC?
Deahl said moving the students back to Sherman Middle School would create a window of opportunity for the district to possibly share space and costs with other governmental units like the village of Holly or Holly Township. “All involved would be able to share economies of scale, and by working together, it would show the public that they are, in fact, good stewards of their tax dollars,” he said.
Junior Kindergarten and Young 5s
Deahl said he was particularly happy to learn that the new junior kindergarten and Young 5s programs have already led to an increase in enrollment.
“It’s only one year, but I’m optimistic, if properly marketed and rolled out into Rose Pioneer (Elementary School), we will continue to see even greater growth,” he said.
Perception of the HAS district
How people from other communities perceive the Holly Area School district is problematic, Deahl said. “Unfortunately, the Holly Area School district is not perceived as a destination school district by our own residents, let along those outside of the district,” he said. “The numbers that I have seen are startling.”
Deahl’s research showed that the Holly Area School district continues to lose 506 students to Holly Academy, 368 students to Huron Valley Schools, 59 students to Brandon, and 44 to Clarkston.
The 1,010 students that live in the Holly Area School district, yet attend schools in neighboring districts represents 25 percent of the entire student population, and adds up to nearly $7 million in lost enrollment revenues, Deahl said.
“Perhaps because I’m new to the board, this is old news, but I was very unsettled when I realized that these were our numbers,” he said. “While sobering, I want to emphasize that this perception is not the reality of the hard work and results that our students and teachers achieve – should we choose, we can use this as a catalyst.”
Parental involvement and a ‘credibility gap’
“I respectfully submit that we have a credibility gap,” Deahl said before sharing a couple personal stories with the board about community members who felt they have been duped by the Board of Education.
“I was making small talk with my dental hygienist and I asked her, ‘What do you think about Sherman Middle School?’” he said. “She said, ‘What a shame. All that money wasted.’ In a nutshell, she lost faith in the board and the system.”
In general, Deahl blames the community’s mistrust of the board on last fall’s failure to pass the district’s sinking fund. “She along with the other two thirds of the voters voted it down,” he said of his hygienist. “We do have parental community involvement, but not in the way we want it,” he added. “I don’t have a crystal ball, but I think the next sinking fund is in jeopardy because we are perceived as a system that lacks credibility – 66 percent doesn’t trust us with their tax dollars, and it would seem 25 percent doesn’t trust us with their children.”
Middle School teachers weigh in
After visiting with many of the middle school teachers, Deahl said an overwhelming number of them want to move back into Sherman Middle School because of their concerns with academic achievement, the facilities in general and staff and student safety.
Of those he spoke with, Deahl said most believed that isolating sixth graders from a middle school environment does a disservice to the students, and that as a result, it is difficult to pull a class together that is ready for high school in just two years.
Building-wise, Deahl said teachers believe Sherman Middle School offers a much better facility with bigger classrooms, a more adaptable gym, and true science rooms with running water, better equipment and storage.
Deahl said teachers have concerns about safety on the Karl Richter Campus with multiple entry points into the building, a confusing layout, and unknown people routinely roaming the hallways. Additionally, Deahl said the teachers commented on how bus loading and unloading is better designed at Sherman Middle School.
“We have a public that is not inclined to pass our sinking fund,” Deahl said. “ We have 25 percent of our possible student enrollment voting with their feet, we have at best, a moderately hostile governor, we have an empty building that continues to be a source of mistrust, all the while we have dwindling funds with a mandate to increase test scores,” he said. “We can become a destination, and I believe that the first step is to open Sherman Middle School to sixth, seventh and eighth grades.”
Lenar discusses costs of moving back
Lenar said aside from moving costs which he estimated will range from $130,000 to $150,000, transportation costs would also add up quickly.
“Transportation as a standalone would add about four more buses, additional driving time and obviously fuel,” Lenar said. “Because of the extra driving time, some of the bus drivers would become fulltime and would most likely become eligible for health insurance,” he added. “When you add those costs up, we’re probably approaching $200,000.”
Since closing its doors in 2011, Lenar said the district has saved about $90,000 per year in utility costs at Sherman Middle School, and noted that reopening it would also boost custodial costs by another $30,000 to $35,000 above and beyond what is already paid for KRC custodial costs.
Further discussion by the board
Superintendent Kent Barnes said moving students back to Sherman Middle School could be done, but would result in the district lacking enough funds to carry out Nuss’ proposed initiative.
“My point is very simple – moving back to Sherman is not the singular issue,” Barnes said. “It is a part of the total – it’s not apart from the total.”
While he appreciated hearing Deahl’s thoughts and seeing the data he presented, Barnes said he would be using the days ahead to prepare his thoughts on the issues, and will be sharing them at the next board meeting.
Treasurer Mike Newcomb said the board needs to listen better to what the community wants. “Even on the sinking fund – before it was even voted on, it was overwhelming to hear that people were not supporting it because we put repairs of the Karl Richter building on them,” he said. “That was 15 or 20 years ago but those are the stories I still hear today.”
Newcomb said many of the stakeholders with whom he has spoken are still shocked that Sherman Middle Schools was closed, especially in light of the recent remodeling.
“And we really haven’t discussed the competitor in our back yard at all,” Newcomb said of Holly Academy. “We basically paid for their new addition – we made them stronger and we lost students,” he added. “Either we continue down this path and won’t be able to turn it around after a certain point, or we address it head one and listen to the community.”
The board is expected to vote on the issue at the next regular board meeting on March 25, 2013.