By Teresa Carrano, Times-Union Staff Writer
Whitko school district residents filled the middle school’s lecture room space during the school board’s Monday meeting.
Board members Jorell Tucker, Eric Trump, Carrie Hoffman and Matt Long heard from 33 people regarding the board’s January decision to move seventh- and eighth-graders to the high school in South Whitley.
The district’s student population rates have been on the decline for many years. In January 2017, public meetings were held in all the buildings to educate the public about how fewer students meant less money for the corporation’s general fund. Closing one of the schools was presented as a cost-savings move.
Pierceton and Washington Township residents were shocked at the January motion and subsequent passage, 3-2, to make the high school in South Whitley a junior-senior high school. Many of Monday’s speakers reminded the board of promises not kept for 50 years, saying development of the middle school was preferable as a more centralized location.
In a recent public letter, the board members indicated a centralized location was their preference, too, and sending the middle school students to South Whitley was only a temporary situation.
At the work session earlier this month, Tucker, board president, said it will be up to the public to pay for the upgrades to the middle school by agreeing to maintain the current school tax levy or increase it. Costs, presented in five phases, to upgrade the high school were given as $22 million and as $33 million to develop the middle school.
Many of the speakers were proud Whitko graduates and current parents sending their children to Whitko schools. Others moved to the district specifically for the school’s reputation of providing a quality, values-based education.
Pierceton resident Brian Hartman addressed the board, saying the board had shuttered the hope of a centralized high school. He couldn’t see the sense in spending $500,000 upgrading the outdated and poorly built high school if the board’s true intention was development of the Larwill campus.
Hartman’s sentiments were echoed many times during the evening, with citizens saying the reconfiguration, even for a year, meant the end of the district.
The proposal to buy mobile classrooms and place them outside the building was questioned as a student-safety issue. Several people pointed out the increase in school shootings and the inclement weather for many months of the year.
Jen Bruce, Pierceton Elementary School kindergarten teacher, said the Larwill location was competitive and would draw students in.
Laura Cassidy, PES parent-teacher organization president, said the organization was 70 members strong and they have been promoting the district in local preschools.
She asked why the board approved $248,749 in expenditures at the middle school last year, only to abandon the building now.
Henry Miller also said the Larwill-area location had the greatest opportunity and potential because of nearby U.S. 30.
“It has the easiest access, it’s ADA compliant, it can house 700 students and is designed for expansion,” he said.
Tony Phillips said the Larwill location, with its proximity to U.S. 30, had untapped opportunity. Because Columbia City decided to move its new high school well south of U.S. 30, a Larwill school would be the only one along the highway. He said the community could use both buildings to their full potential with athletic events in South Whitley and development of an alternative – technical – music and arts building there.
Several people asked the board to reconsider their decision and revote.
Lewis Collier asked how a unanimous vote to locate the junior-senior high at the middle school in December became a 3-2 decision in January. He said the January decision wasn’t clear.
“That letter was just to pacify us,” he said. “You’re throwing money away and asking half the kids to spend half their school life, six years, in South Whitley.”
Randy Cokl, of South Whitley, said the board’s decision was based on facts and financial considerations.
“Give the decision the board made a chance. Don’t find fault, find a remedy,” he said.
Tony Starkey, also of South Whitley, urged the board members to reach out to everyone in the district and draw on the resources of knowledge and business experience available.
Aaron Robbins asked for the Jan. 15 decision to be rescinded and move the junior-senior high to Larwill.
“If the middle school students are at the high school for just one year, there will be an exodus of students and Whitko will die,” he said.
Kayla Schipper, a WHS junior, said she had a petition from 200 students to keep the high school open for at least another year and everyone was ready to welcome the middle school students.
“We want to be the first class that graduates from the junior-senior high,” she said.