SC school board re-opens discussion about closing Gaines

SWARTZ CREEK — Citing declining enrollment, Swartz Creek Community Schools officials have re-opened discussion about the future of Gaines Elementary.

The topic first arose in 2016 under the leadership of former Superintendent Dr. Jeff Hall and many current and former members of the Board of Education.

At that time, enrollment numbered 230 to 240 students at Gaines, according to current Superintendent Ben Mainka. Looking toward the start of the 2021-22 school year, that number is now down to 120, which includes those students who opted for home schooling due to COVID-19 this school year, Mainka said.

He called the decline “steep and significant.”

“Every year, I get the question, ‘Is this the year we’re going to talk about closing Gaines?’” he said. “I get the question from community members, not this board.

“My perspective, the entire time I’ve been here, is it doesn’t make sense to close a building when a large number of those children will go to another district. I’ve made that case. I haven’t suggested, and no board member has suggested (closing Gaines).

“The numbers are the numbers, and my argument is waning in its effectiveness as those numbers continue to drop, making it difficult to justify as far as running the building as it is and being fiscally responsible.”

District officials will host townhall meetings, the first of which was scheduled for Wednesday, June 16. The results of that meeting were not available by press time.

“I think the community out there needs to be consulted,” Mainka said.

Two of the primary concerns are the effect a closure would have on the rural village, and the number of families who will opt to send their children to another district, such as Byron Area Schools, which includes part of the Gaines community and already has a bus that goes into the village.

Mainka said multiple factors have contributed to the decline in enrollment. He cited few new home builds in the area, a low population density and fewer younger families moving in.

“An unintended consequence, when the elementary (realignment) model was implemented, was that a number of Gaines families said they wanted their children to participate in that,” he said. “So, they moved to one of the early or upper elementary buildings because of that program.”

Mainka was referring to the realignment of the district’s elementary school buildings in the 2020-21 school year. Under the realignment, Morrish and Syring elementary schools now house lower elementary grades, and Elms Road and Dieck schools serve upper elementary students, rather than all four buildings serving kindergarten through fifth grade.

Mainka added that attempts to boost enrollment at Gaines, by assigning School of Choice students to that building, were not successful as many of those families ultimately chose not to attend Swartz Creek schools.

“Did we cause part of this problem by combining schools?” school board Trustee Chuck Melki asked. “Is there a way to … infuse kids into that part of our district? … We have to look at the effect on that downtown. I feel like we have some obligation there.”

Melki also has concerns about the future of the building.

“If we decide to close it, is it going to end up like Mary Crapo, where we end up with a building that this district owns (and it’s) deteriorating,” he said. “That hurts the community as a whole.”

Village resident and Gaines Bar owner Melissa Neal echoed Melki’s concern.

“I hope you have a backup plan because the last thing our little village needs is a decrepit building, like Mary Crapo,” Neal said. “We can’t handle that in the village.”

Mainka also noted that Gaines is a “unique area,” and the district does have some families who drive their children to Gaines although they live just a few miles from other elementary buildings.

Jessica Southwell is one of those parents. She lives close to Morrish, but chooses to drive 20 minutes to take her children to Gaines, then 35 minutes from there to work.

“But it’s worth it,” Southwell said. “My kids’ education is soaring. I see such an improvement in the kids’ education with the small class sizes.”

She said her friends are jealous that her kids get to learn in a classroom with just 18 students.

Christine Wasserman said the district has contributed to the drop in enrollment by discussing the possibility of a closure.

“Every single time this board talks about closing Gaines, you lose more students,” Wasserman said. “They move. They go to Byron. They yank every kid out. You lose them from the district. … News flash: parents aren’t going to put their kids in kindergarten if, two years later, the school will close. You’re scaring these parents away.”

She also pointed out that, in 2016, Gaines was a Blue Ribbon school. The U.S. Department of Education awards Blue Ribbon status to schools based on academic excellence or progress in closing achievement gaps.

Wasserman added that the district could have done a better job of marketing Gaines.

“Everything about this district has gone against Gaines,” she said.

New school board Trustee Jack Sayer agreed that the district could do more to market Gaines.

“Why not actually promote the building … get people excited to go there?” Sayer asked. “There is passion for Gaines Elementary. It’s not like this can’t be fixed, we just have to go about it the right way. I don’t think we should close it. That’s probably the furthest thing from what we should do. There are ways to go around this. If we want to fix it, we have to put time and effort into it.”