HCCSC board moves to close Horace Mann; Salamonie 6-8 students to Riverview

Huntington County Community Schools Corp. Superintendent Tracey Shafer speaks to the school board, including (front from left) Tom King, Ben Landrum and Kevin Patrick, at a board meeting Monday, May 9, at Huntington North High School.
Huntington County Community Schools Corp. Superintendent Tracey Shafer speaks to the school board, including (front from left) Tom King, Ben Landrum and Kevin Patrick, at a board meeting Monday, May 9, at Huntington North High School. Photo by Cindy Klepper.

More than 550 students will be moved to new school districts this fall as Horace Mann Elementary School closes its doors and Salamonie School loses its middle grades.

Those changes were part of a package approved Monday, May 9, by the Huntington County Community Schools Board of Trustees in response to a decline in both enrollment and revenue.

In addition, the board slashed budgets for extracurricular activities and administrators, increased the amount classified (non-teaching) employees must pay for insurance and decided that all school administrative offices should be consolidated in the former Horace Mann building - with savings for the total package estimated at slightly more than the $2.5 million in cuts Superintendent Tracey Shafer said were necessary.

After the meeting, Shafer said he believed the board's action would allow schools to continue to strive for academic excellence while meeting budgetary goals and keeping the Salamonie and Horace Mann buildings available for use should enrollment increase in the future.

According to figures Shafer had earlier presented to the board, enrollment has been declining for more than a decade and, despite a slight uptick this year, is expected to continue in the downward trend.

"Our student enrollment has dropped in excess of 1,000 students the past 15 years," Shafer told the board.

The cost-cutting package was approved on a 4-3 vote, with board President Kevin Patrick and members Scott Hoffman and Rex Baxter voting in the minority.

Baxter said he was against closing any schools.

"I'd rather take somebody's job than close a school," he said.

Hoffman agreed.

"With all of our options for cuts, we can keep all schools open," he said. "I would suggest we hold off on closing any schools. We make these cuts, and we do what's best for our kids."

Patrick said he wasn't against closing a school; he was just against closing Horace Mann.

"I think it's a different building that needs to be closed," Patrick said, without naming a specific building.

Board member Troy Smart, who made the motion for the school closings and related budget cuts, said schools must begin operating more like a business. He noted that the board had recently turned down Shafer's request to issue bonds to fund school improvements, saying it wanted to adopt a pay-as-you-go policy. That can't happen unless the corporation tightens its budget, Smart said.

The corporation's teachers will continue to do a good job no matter what, he said.

"It doesn't matter what building they're in," Smart said. "They're going to be good teachers. Let's invest in our kids rather than our buildings."

"To maintain facilities that are half full or half empty - however you want to look at it - doesn't solve anything," board member Tom King said. "You don't keep things going just because we've always done it."

Board members Dr. Jennifer Goff and Ben Landrum joined King and Smart in voting for the package.

Patrick had a request for the parents and other community members that packed the Huntington North High School library for the meeting.

"Try to be as positive as you can when you discuss this" with the children, he said. "These decisions are based on what's best for our kids."

Following the meeting, Shafer said there are a "multitude of details" to work out. His first priority, he said, is to keep the community informed of what's going on.

A half-dozen community members spoke to the board before the vote, most pleading for a specific school to be left open - similar to the pleas the board has heard over the past few months since Shafer introduced the cost-cutting proposal.

The proposal approved by the board did not include a destination school for the current Horace Mann students, but Shafer had earlier outlined possibilities that would send those students to Andrews, Lincoln and Lancaster schools. Horace Mann currently has 406 students in preschool through fifth grade.

All of the Salamonie middle school students will be moved to Riverview Middle School. Salamonie currently has 162 students in sixth, seventh and eighth grades.

Closing Horace Mann as a school will save about $1 million and moving the middle grades out of Salamonie will save another $930,000, Shafer said.

The moves will reduce the number of teaching and non-teaching positions in the schools, he said, but the corporation has been preparing for that by not permanently filling positions left vacant by retirements and resignations. Current staff members can be moved into those positions, he said, with the positions being filled according to seniority.

Horace Mann will become home to administrative offices now housed in the Administrative Service Center near Huntington Municipal Airport on Ind.-5 and the Instructional Service Center on the former Huntington Public Library building on East Park Drive and Warren Street. The move would leave the former library building empty, Shafer said, but the bus garage and transportation facility would continue to occupy the building on Ind.-5.

Horace Mann could also house revenue-producing programs such as an expanded preschool and a culinary arts school, Shafer said.

Shafer planned to meet with principals of the affected schools beginning May 10, then organize a redistricting committee made up of patrons in the affected area. He said he hopes to receive board approval for a redistricting plan in June, allocate staff and hold orientation sessions in June and July, and move furniture and make any necessary changes to the buildings before school starts in August.

Students will begin the 2011-12 school year in their new buildings.

The administration offices will be moved to Horace Mann no later than July 1, according to the proposal approved by the board.