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MSD to vote on future of Phase II

BY CHELSEA BOULRISSE - cboulrisse@wabashplaindealer.com

The Metropolitan School District of Wabash County (MSD) School Board of Trustees will vote next week on whether to withdraw from phase two of the Community Foundation of Wabash County’s “Studies for Advancement,” which, if pursued, will examine district consolidation models available for MSD and Wabash City Schools (WCS).

The study would be the first comprehensive evaluation of district consolidation undertaken here since 1992.

The future of the study rests on the MSD board’s participation. Manchester Community Schools has already declined the Community Foundation’s invitation for phase two, and Wabash City Schools has consistently expressed its intent to participate. In order for the study as proposed to move forward, the MSD and WCS boards will need to meet and submit a joint proposal.

“We just felt it was necessary to vote to continue or vote to withdraw,” MSD Board President Kevin Bowman said on Friday.

The scope of the study, which at this point appears limited to district consolidation, is what has bothered the MSD board. The board voted in September to participate in phase two of the study, but at the time of the vote most board members were under the impression that the study would examine other topics related to enrollment.

The board’s frustration was apparent late last month when, during a public work session, Bowman stated that he felt he had been “misled” by the Community Foundation.

Community Foundation of Wabash County’s executive director, Patty Grant, defended the foundation’s decision that evening, stating, “We felt that phase one answered all of the questions that could be handled internally or amongst yourselves.”

“The remaining questions to be answered would be about what it would look like for district consolidation,” she continued. “... It certainly wasn’t intended to be so heavy-handed, but rather to focus the limited amount of resources we have.”

The two-phase study has been funded by the Community Foundation at no cost to the school corporations.

The first phase produced a 32-page report that highlighted Wabash County’s declining population and its impact on the public school corporations. The report predicts that the county’s overall population will fall by 1.2 percent between 2015 and 2020 and by 3.1 percent between 2015 and 2025, based on U.S. Census data.

And Wabash County’s population is not just declining, it’s aging. These two facts, the report found, will have a profound and negative impact on the viability of the three public school systems unless changes are made soon.

The report projects that the three school districts will lose a combined 311 students – or 6.1 percent of the county’s student population – over the next decade. That figure does not include students who transfer to schools outside the county without moving.

Fewer students means less state funding, but fixed costs such as building maintenance and utilities will not go down and the expectations put on schools will continue to be more and more expensive, the report found.

While the study makes a strong case for the public schools here to make serious changes, it does not answer questions related to particular steps the schools can take without consolidating.

Local superintendents, however, see value in exploring the topic of consolidation even if the boards do not reach an agreement once the results are in.

“I think the point of research is to provide as objective as possible information in making complex decisions,” WCS Superintendent Jason Callahan said. “Consolidation is a nebulous term in the sense that it invokes 100 different connotations. Having a research-based report helps decision makers to best understand the challenges and strengths surrounding possible solutions.”

This would not be the first time that consolidation has been studied in Wabash County. Callahan advised the Plain Dealer in an email that several studies have taken place over the past 50 years or so to discuss the topic.

One of the first studies took place in 1960 and looked at five different avenues including having a single county administrative unit, two county school corporations and the current configuration that sees the county divided into three county corporations.

“This 1960 study was very thorough, looking at population, which was a driving force of the Township consolidations, curricular offerings, transportation, tax rates, staffing, buildings, AV and special conditions,” Callahan said. “Plan C was adopted over Plan B due to a 1958 referendum voting against consolidation of MSD and Wabash City Schools.”

A 1992 study of consolidation, which saw WCS exploring the idea, is believed to be one of the most recent explorations of the concept. Examining familiar factors like school funding and student enrollment, the study, according to Callahan, concluded that WCS should “really consider” reorganization with MSD.

A public referendum on the question that year was overwhelmingly rejected by voters.