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May 30, 2014

Schofield Elementary will close its doors

Closing part of budget plan to save dollars

By Maria Allard
C & G Staff Writer

WARREN — Erin Southerland duct taped “Save Schofield” signs to her van, circulated a petition urging Fitzgerald Public Schools officials not to close Schofield Elementary and more in an effort to keep the school open.

“I don’t think it’s right that any of these schools close,” said Southerland, whose two children attend Schofield.

But at the May 29 FPS Board of Education meeting, the school board voted 7-0 to approve a budget reform plan for the 2014-15 school year that includes closing Schofield and relocating students to the district’s other two elementary schools. School officials are looking at a $1.6 million shortfall for next year, and closing Schofield would decrease operational costs, including teacher salaries and utility costs.

Schofield was chosen as the closing school because district officials want to have one elementary on the district’s northwest side, Westview, and one on the southeast side, Mound Park.

“We don’t have the enrollment right now to support three elementaries,” Superintendent Barbara VanSweden said. “Our teaching staff, they’re staying in the district. There will be places for most of them.”

However, staff layoffs will occur.

“We’re looking at that now,” the superintendent said.

There are no plans to sell Schofield at this time, and the school will be maintained.

By state law, school districts must balance their budgets. If Fitzgerald is unable to balance the budget for 2014-15, school officials must comprise a deficit elimination plan to the state. That could place FPS at the risk of losing funding and the capacity to make decisions for the district.

The board’s decision to close Schofield upset many parents, who voiced their opinions at the meeting. For starters, Schofield parents claimed there is not enough parking at Mound Park to accommodate more families while there is ample space at Schofield. Others criticized the school board members for constantly saying Fitzgerald is a “family,” but they didn’t stand behind that sentiment by closing a school parents and children love.

Jennifer Hilliglass’ daughter is a first-grader at Schofield. She lives down the street from Mound Park, but she said she had to send her daughter to Schofield when she started school last year because class sizes at Mound Park “were too big.” One concern is how students are dropped off for school at Mound Park.

“They drive 100 miles per hour down Curie. I’m not kidding. They’re so fast, they’re gone,” said Hilliglass, who told the board the decision to close Schofield “will lose parents. You’re going to lose enrollment big time.”

When addressing the board, parent Kim Akins said she’s “looking” at the Warren Consolidated and Warren Woods school districts to send her children because Schofield will close.

Fitzgerald High School teacher Danielle Smith has taught in three different states, where she experienced the closing and merging of schools. There were very hard feelings at first — much like at last week’s meeting — but “when the school year started, it all went away. The teachers love (the students) just the same no matter where they were,” she said.

The budget reform plan also includes administrative, clerical and custodial/maintenance concessions and the elimination of consultant contracts in the district’s human resource department, thus reducing staff costs.

In addition, school officials will close the Neigebaur building and relocate administrative offices within the district. The district’s FLEX alternative high school program, currently housed in Neigebaur, will now become the Virtual Academy for students.

“Students will take online courses at no cost,” VanSweden said. “They receive a Chromebook (laptop) with Internet access. If they graduate, they can keep the Chromebook.”

Virtual Academy students will meet with a facilitator once a week “to make sure kids are enrolled in the right courses,” VanSweden said. Meetings will take place at the FHS Automotive and Technology Institution. Closing Neigebaur reduces operational costs. Like Schofield, Neigebaur will be not be sold and will be maintained.

“It’s not what it’s cracked up to be,” parent Gemia See said of Virtual Academy. “It doesn’t work.”

See’s daughter was in the nationwide K-12 Virtual School, but she said there were always problems.

“Teachers did not communicate and did not explain the curriculum,” said See, whose daughter enrolled in FLEX this past March, is doing well there and is on schedule to graduate next year. Now that FLEX is closing, See said her daughter will most likely enroll in an adult education program in Hazel Park.

Board member Judy Furgal said there was no “hidden agenda” to close Schofield, and in the end, it did come down to location.

“We talked and talked and talked about it,” she said. “It was a choice that was difficult to make. I’ve lived here my entire life. I have no reason to not love this place.”

Making budget reductions has been a constant for Michigan’s public schools. School districts statewide have reduced staff and programs to balance their budgets year after year. Funding for public education is tied to property values through Proposal A. Because of Michigan’s recent economic decline, funding for school districts has been cut at the state level, although school expenses have increased. FPS took another financial hit this year with a drop in enrollment of 135 students,  leaving the district with a $1.1 million loss in per pupil funding.

VanSweden offered reasons behind the declining enrollment, including School of Choice, lower birthrates, charter and private schools, and online schools. “Parents have a lot of options. They’re choosing to exercise those options.”

FPS also has endured a decline in property values, and VanSweden said school districts statewide continue to pay an increase in the state’s retirement rate every year.

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Maria Allard at allard@candgnews.com or at (586)498-1045.