Students head to school this week with the hope and expectations that come with a clean slate and a new start. Soon, the hard work begins.
It’s no different for those who run the St. Joseph School District. In the past year, the district stabilized its funding with a levy extension and $2.3 million in cost savings. Now, an observer might say it’s time to move from the basic algebra of operations to the advanced calculus of measuring the future of aging buildings against student enrollment that’s projected to drop in coming years.
“We have a lot of big decisions to make moving forward,” said Seth Wright, school board president, in a meeting with News-Press NOW editors and reporters.
The Board of Education has identified priorities other than facilities, including better handling of classroom behavioral issues and a continued focus on building trust with the public. On the latter point, the school board added an assistant superintendent position earlier this summer without increasing headcount — the duties were assigned to an existing administrator — and overall pay and benefits to Downtown administrators is down 10 percent in a two-year period.
But the reality is this: The most intense focus won’t be on student behavior or administrative headcount. It will center on the future of district facilities, or more specifically, the future of the three high schools.
Community members gave initial feedback at focus group meetings last week, following an outside company’s evaluation of every building in the school district. That some of the highest facility scores went to Lafayette’s field house and Central’s concession stand says plenty about the state of the district’s academic buildings.
At some point, the board will be faced with the decision to stick with three high schools or go down to two or one. Drilling down deeper, the board must determine whether to renovate an existing building or buildings, or build one from scratch.
This will be a wrenching decision for the public, which is likely to have the last say in the form of a school bond election. Loyalty to a particular high school runs deep in this city, with some saying you’re not truly a St. Joseph resident if you didn’t graduate from a local high school. We don’t agree with that, but it would be foolish not to acknowledge that the sentiment exists.
We take no position on a high school plan, because no final plan exists at this point. We do strongly encourage the school board, administration and voting public to base a decision on the future of high schools not on nostalgia or what worked in the past, but on what provides the best operational efficiencies and 21st century learning experience going forward.
It should be an interesting year.