Monterey Elementary will close - board votes 5-2 to end operations after this year

Unquestionably there was anger and sadness, but when the Culver Community School board’s vote arrived Monday night to close Monterey Elementary School, few were likely surprised.

Two weeks earlier, voices had been raised in another school board meeting both for and against the move. To those in favor of the closing, the sheer enormity of the numbers left little choice. To those against it, closing Monterey seemed a hasty decision which in the long run could cost the school corporation dearly in students departing the district for the greener pastures of other schools, thanks to recent legislation allowing families vouchers to make use of private schools, and older legislation allowing them to choose better performing public schools even outside the local district.

At the April 25 meeting, Culver Superintendent Brad Schuldt explained last year’s $300,000 in state funding cuts are being followed by changes in two grant sources -- among other alterations -- which would affect Culver schools to the tune of more than $800,000, a figure he said could be most efficiently matched by closing Monterey Elementary School and moving its teachers to Culver buildings.

MES’ current Principal, Julie Berendt, was officially reassigned at the same meeting as Principal of Culver Community Middle School, starting this fall. Schuldt said no teachers’ jobs would be lost if Monterey closed, whereas keeping it open would cut teachers at Culver Elementary -- which he said currently has ten empty classrooms -- and thus increase its class sizes to more than 30 students.

At this week’s meeting, again held in the Culver Community High School cafeteria to accommodate more than 100 attendees, Schuldt opened the floor for public comment.

Public comment varies

Culver teacher Luke Biernacki said he believed closing Monterey was the best solution to maintain smaller class sizes and keep as many extracurricular and academic programs as possible within the school system. His comments -- and some others in favor of the closing -- echoed Schuldt’s statements the previous week that cuts at Culver from keeping Monterey would likely force the demise of programs ranging from arts to vocational, industrial technology to extra-curricular programs like clubs and athletics.

Jonathan Broeker, a Monterey Elementary and Culver Community High School graduate who said he has a business administration degree and extensive experience in business crisis management, said he had attended the previous board meeting.

Quoting a former professor of his, Broeker – who added he loves Monterey "with all my heart" -- said, "It takes a second to make a decision, and the rest of your life to regret it."

He noted the corporation’s "long-term problem" is shrinking enrollment, "and maybe some bad spending." He suggested closing Monterey would cause students to be lost, particularly in Indiana’s legislative environment of open enrollment.

Referring to statistics presented in defense of Culver Elementary’s academic performance at the previous meeting by CES Principal Chuck Kitchell, Broeker said if Monterey is closed, "those statistics he presented will have to be against Plymouth, Knox, and Rochester (since parents could choose to send their children to those districts). If I was a parent tomorrow and (could) send my kids within a 10-minute drive longer to get them there, I’d look at (larger schools’) athletics and test scores...I hope those numbers are ready, Mr. Kitchell. We’ll need those when the state comes knocking at your door."

Use of the nearly $1 million in Culver’s Rainy Day funds, part of which could be spent to keep Monterey open, should be considered, Broeker added.

"This is the definition of a rainy day! Schools are going to close."

CCHS English teacher Tina Stacy, a Monterey resident, said she believed many parents would leave the corporation regardless of which decision the board made, adding that the existence of Monterey Elementary as a building isn’t what makes children’s education better.

Monterey staff member Cindy Master, who said her four children attended MES, stressed the state’s recent emphasis on consolidating school districts of less than 2,000 students, suggesting closing Monterey would only make Culver’s enrollment smaller and smaller, and eventually force shutdown of the entire district.

Superintendent’s position

Schuldt then made his official recommendation that the board cease operations of Monterey Elementary after the end of this school year.

Acknowledging the "tough time" the corporation is in, and thanking board members for their work in listening to calls and reading emails, and researching facts about the closing, Schuldt said recent legislative decisions dictate that "public school policy will never be the same in Indiana and particularly the Culver district."

Schuldt noted the local community once had the power to decide how to fund its schools, but funding has been reduced and its dispersal largely removed from local authorities’ hands.

The corporation’s governing body, he said, has two primary responsibilities: to make the corporation the best it can be, and to the taxpayers to balance its budget so money isn’t spent faster than received.

"If we’re using stimulus money and Rainy Day funds for our daily operational costs, we’re not working within our needs," he added. "There are so many ways to reduce our costs by blending the two elementary schools into one, where we can allow our employees to be more efficient."

Board discussion, decision

Board member Marilyn Swanson moved to support Schuldt’s recommendation, and member Ryan Sieber seconded.

During ensuing board discussion, each member thanked the public for submitted suggestions, comments, phone calls, emails, and the like. Each also agreed wrestling with the decision has been extremely difficult for them.

Board member Jim Wentzel criticized Indiana’s Superintendent of Public Instruction for his disproportionate focus on private schools and the voucher system.

"Indianapolis has lost focus on what’s important to us," he said, "And that’s public schools."

Board member Ken VanDePutte said concerns over the decision had almost made him physically ill of late. He noted he visited all the schools and spoke with students, teachers, administrators, and staff members, and came to a decision he could live with.

"(What’s best for all students) doesn’t just come from English, math, and social studies -- it comes from extracurricular programs, arts, athletics, vocational programs (and others)," he said.

Board member Jack Jones emphasized not rushing into any decisions, and member Ryan Sieber said he also spoke with many people, adding he hoped if Monterey school closed, "we can make the vote to open it back up."

Fellow board member Marilyn Swanson agreed with that hope, stressing however the immediate importance that board members "preserve the district" first and foremost.

Board member Ed Behnke said his vote would be to keep Monterey open one more year, though he noted that didn’t mean he’d vote the same way each year.

"I’m afraid we’re liable to fragment all the North Bend people (in closing MES), the people in (Fulton County), and we’ll have people pairing off to Plymouth. We’re four counties -- we could fracture it," he said.

Board President Eugene Baker said he looked at comparable small districts elsewhere and had fears that eliminating extracurricular programs here could drive students away from the district. He noted Culver’s district is currently doing well but is trying to support two elementary buildings at once. He emphasized the quality of teaching trumps the existence of any given building.

At the final vote, Behnke and Jones voted against the closure, with the others voting for it.

An exodus of around half the room followed the vote, with a few subdued departing shouts. Applause followed Schuldt’s recommendation to the board, however, that no teachers be cut from the corporation due to the vote on closing Monterey, though he said there will be cuts in non-certified staff.

Note: A complete version of this article will appear in this week's Culver Citizen newspaper.