Fate of Monterey Elementary is hot-button topic at meeting

There were plenty of questions, a number of suggestions, and ample emotions running high at Monday night's meeting of the Culver Community School board, but at the end of the night, few easy answers.

The primary topic was the hot-button question of whether to close Monterey Elementary School as a means of compensating for a nearly $1 million shortfall in corporation funding, assuming legislation currently in debate at the state level should pass. Culver Community High School's cafeteria -- where the meeting was moved due to the crowd of more than 100 -- was nearly filled, with microphones provided for members of the public as well as board members and Culver school superintendent Brad Schuldt.

Many of the public comments, coming from audience members ranging from Monterey parents and teachers, to community leaders and Culver Elementary teachers, were addressed by Schuldt in a slideshow presentation he noted is also available on the corporation website, www.culver.k12.in.us. Explaining he attended a small high school which itself closed four years after his graduation, Schuldt said he understood the emotions of those facing closure of their local school.

Schuldt details budget woes

He noted the school corporation's budget comes from six major funds, one of which -- the general fund -- is used for teacher salaries and benefits. No other funds may be used as revenue streams towards that end, by state law. He also described the shift in 2009 from general fund sources being derived from property taxes, to income and sales taxes, which naturally have decreased in the recent recession.

Last year, he said, the school system cut over $348,000 to compensate for that loss, but now will have to trim appropriations for the general fund by $855,928 in the next two years. Specific losses from the school's budget, should legislation pass downstate later this week, will come from the loss of Restoration grant monies ($572,692) and the Small School grant ($195,485).

The school's Rainy Day fund does have $980,000 in it in reserve, which Schuldt acknowledged could be used to get the corporation through its current crisis, but such a move would deplete funds possibly needed in the event of an emergency, and wouldn't solve ongoing budget problems past the next two years. Answering a query brought up by some in the audience, Schuldt affirmed school administrators did give up their one percent salary increase recently, as did teachers. He also responded to calls from some in the audience to reduce the school's athletics and extracurricular budget by noting it had already been cut by 25 percent, and a total elimination of those funds would only net the school $122,580.

Culver schools' enrollment has dropped 15 percent since 1998, he also explained, and per-pupil funding from the state is being cut from $7,283 in 2011, to $6,861 in 2013.

Possible funding solutions

Schuldt offered three possible solutions to the budget crisis: to increase revenue by raising taxes 11 cents per dollar via referendum (which he said he felt would fail in a vote, and which would require two to three years’ wait for the school to see revenue increases); use the Rainy Day fund to compensate for revenue losses; decrease expenses through budget cuts; or a combination of any of the above.

In the area of budget reductions, Schuldt offered a host of options ranging from closing Monterey Elementary, to reducing administration, to cutting programs such as business, art, music, industrial tech, foreign language, building trades, and vocational programs. He noted many of the above-named extracurricular programs only have one teacher staffing them, so cutting an individual teacher would destroy the entire program.

Closing Monterey Elementary, he said, would save $50,000 in utilities and maintenance, $97,000 in administration (one principal), $370,000 in certified personnel (seven teachers), and $230,000 in non-certified personnel (five to six staff members). Combined with $58,000 in other resulting staffing changes, Schuldt projected closing MES would net the corporation $805,000 in savings, very close to the number needed. In response to questions about multiple school buses running the same routes, Schuldt said three Monterey bus routes can be eliminated by combining buses, for a total savings of $113,000, though the funds wouldn't benefit the beleaguered general fund where they’re most needed.

The school does have $250,000 from federal stimulus money, which he said could save five teachers' jobs, though only for the first year.

Berendt will become Middle School Principal

One immediate recommendation from the superintendent -- which the school board voted into effect -- was to appoint Culver Elementary Principal Chuck Kitchell (with Assistant Principal Craig Hopple supporting) as Principal for both Monterey and Culver Elementary schools, while moving current Monterey Principal Julie Berendt to Culver Middle School to relieve Culver High School Assistant Principal Tom Corey, currently acting as Middle School Principal in absence of a regular CMS Principal. The move will save the corporation around $95,000, Schuldt said, including savings, insurance and other benefits, and the like.

Cuts at CES if Monterey stays

Keeping Monterey open, he said, would require over $800,000 in budget cuts at Culver Elementary, which would likely come from extracurricular programs at CES.

"Some of you are very emotional about losing your school building," he said. "Many at Culver Elementary are emotional about losing the colleague teaching next door."

Schuldt said by pooling and Culver students into one building (he noted there are 10 empty classrooms currently at Culver Elementary) would create a balance in class sizes. Keeping Monterey open, he said, could cost Culver Elementary four teachers. Class sizes at MES might be as small as 15 while Culver's could be over 30 per class, he added.

Audience suggestions and input

One audience member suggested as many as 70 students currently enrolled at Monterey could leave the corporation entirely should MES close, which could cost the system over $500,000. Schuldt said he welcomed some audience members’ suggestions of volunteering at the school as aides or for cleanup, to save the corporation money.

Other audience input included a detailed summary of options from MES parents Dan Schaller and Brandon Collins, who emphasized Monterey's success, having earned recognition by the state of Indiana as an exemplary school and Berendt's being named Principal of the Year. Also stressed were the increased class sizes at Culver Elementary and dissatisfaction from CES parents, who could pull students out of the corporation in response, causing heavy revenue losses to Culver as a result.

Many speakers commented passionately on the caring, nurturing environment at Monterey, the dedication of its teachers, the value of its small class size, and its success in motivating even under-performing students. Audience member John Keller suggested not rushing into a decision the corporation would regret in closing MES. Monterey businessman and Lions President Doug Denton expressed concern about the fate of the community of Monterey as a whole, noting many people live in the town for its quality school system. Closing MES could result in a large exodus out, he said, with resultant tax revenue shifts affecting the corporation's funding.

"If you keep taking things away from communities," he added, "pretty soon there'll be no one there."

Some Culver teachers stepped forward to emphasize the quality of teaching at that school as well. CES Principal Chuck Kitchell, commending Monterey for its successful record, said that many don't know Culver Elementary students scored on average higher on tests than Monterey students nine out of 14 times in English and Math. He attributed some of Monterey's success to less numbers of Special Education students. CES, he said, has had as many as 72 students in that group, which can alter overall scoring results in the state's view. Kitchell also replied to audience member Bart Shank that an absorption of MES by Culver Elementary would likely result in Culver class sizes between 21 and 28 students.

Final vote to decide MES’ fate May 9

The board will have to vote on whether to close MES at the next (May 9) school board meeting, it was noted. Schuldt said the state requires a certain time frame of notification for teachers whose jobs will be cut. He added Monterey's teachers aren't in jeopardy due to seniority -- current Culver teachers would instead feel the brunt of staff cuts.

Schuldt encouraged the audience to email, call, and otherwise contact the administration or school board members with other suggestions on how the school could come within budget needs but still keep Monterey open.

Each board member, thanking the audience for its input, discussed the difficulty of having to make the decision, and some suggested a closing could be temporary if it occurs. Member Jack Jones, who attended a standing-room-only "town hall" meeting at Monterey's public library the previous week, noted he put two of his own children through MES.

"(It's) a very warm, friendly, comforting place to go into," he said of the school. "I don't want to see it close. It's one big happy family. We're charged with doing what's right for all the students (in the corporation). That's the tough part."