SWARTZ CREEK — Swartz Creek Community Schools administrators continue to work out the logistics of realigning the elementary schools.
Last week, the Board of Education voted 5-2 to reconfigure four of the five elementary buildings into upper- and lower-elementary schools. School board Treasurer Mike Ahearne and Trustee Chuck Melki cast the dissenting votes.
On the east side of the school district, Morrish Elementary will serve kindergarten through second grade students from both the Morrish and Elms Road areas. Students from those areas will go to Elms Road for third through fifth grade.
On the west side, Syring and Dieck will team up, with Syring serving kindergarten through second grade and Dieck serving third- through fifth-grade students from both areas.
Gaines Elementary will remain a K-5 building.
District officials are currently working to ensure “a good and smooth transition for our families,” said Superintendent Ben Mainka.
That focus includes providing a transportation solution that will cause the least disruption for families.
Upper- and lower-elementary students will ride together, and buses will go to the lower-elementary schools first.
Students who walk to school will continue to do so, and those who have to go to a different building will catch the bus at their neighborhood school.
“If you live two miles from Dieck, for example, you’re riding the bus, under normal circumstances, for maybe 40 minutes,” said Mainka. “The bus stops here and stops there and circles back. That’s what we have now. It will be the same, but one of the stops will be Syring. It will look very much the same; they’re just passing through Syring as one of their stops.”
In the afternoon, buses will pick up the lower elementary children and shuttle them to the upper elementary schools where they will join their upper elementary siblings for the bus ride home.
The realignment is expected to save the district at least $600,000, primarily in reductions in personnel.
“The minimum is $600,000; it could be more,” said Mainka. “We are pretty confident in that number.”
As an example, Syring Principal Michele Wildey explained that, for the 2019-20 school year, 40 kindergartners were enrolled at Dieck Elementary, forcing the district to hire a second kindergarten teacher at Dieck.
“Dieck had 20 kindergarten kids per classroom while all the other buildings had 27 or 28,” she said.
Balanced class sizes will mean the district will need fewer teachers and support staff, but it also creates efficiencies in ordering supplies, Mainka said.
“When you’re buying supplies for the STEM room, you won’t have to buy for five grade levels (per building), you’re buying supplies to be shared for three grade levels,” he said.
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting losses in revenues, school districts across the country are looking for ways to trim their budgets. In Michigan, number-crunchers are estimating a $1 billion loss in state revenue sharing to school districts. That could translate to a $1.1 million loss to the Swartz Creek Community Schools, district officials have said.
Questions remain regarding whether the federal government will step in to offset the losses, and how deep the cuts will have to go to make up for the shortfall. Mainka said it’s likely staff, across the board, will have to make concessions to get the district over the rough patch.
With so many unknowns, district officials aren’t ruling out the necessity of cutting student services as a last resort.
“We are starting with the things that don’t impact student programs,” Mainka said. “Other districts are talking about maybe eliminating music or sports, or transportation – those types of things. Our philosophy is, let’s not even go there yet. We want to prioritize student programs and opportunities more than building configuration. Our goal in these difficult times is to prioritize programs and support services for our kids.”
The upper- and lower-elementary model could yield some additional opportunities for students, he said.
“For example, we could take a group of students who are advanced in mathematics … and put them into a cluster group and have a gifted and talented program,” Mainka explained. “We will be able to have that in all of our buildings.”
Additional benefits could stem from greater teacher collaboration, including common planning time for same-grade teachers and concentrated literacy blocks to ensure that students are where they need to be in terms of reading, writing and comprehension. The model also provides more opportunity for early intervention for students who are struggling, Mainka said.
School board President Carrie Germain said more focused literacy interventions “will serve our children well into their careers.”
She added that balancing class sizes and allowing teachers to share their expertise will create a more efficient educational format.
However, there is, as yet, no empirical research supporting one elementary configuration over the other.
“No study says definitively that one model is superior to the other,” Mainka said. “We’re proposing a model that is not ‘bad’ for kids. It won’t harm kids.”
Many parents and two school board members aren’t sold on the idea, especially since children have faced so many disruptions already this calendar year.
“Leave our schools alone,” said parent Lindsay Nemer. “We’re making a permanent change based on temporary circumstances … not because of proven academics for our children, but because of what our superintendent wants. I find that incredibly irresponsible.”
Parent Kristen Swift said she is “extremely opposed” to the change.
“Our children have been through so much already with the pandemic,” she said. “The fall is already uncertain enough. The last thing our children need is more stress and changes. (They need) normalcy and familiarity.”
In addition to the effect the change will have on student mental health, concerns also include time spent on the bus, siblings going to different schools, the loss of established building-based relationships and more.
“I have to side with the students and their mental health and their need to get back to normalcy,” Ahearne said. “I don’t think we need to add to their problems by going to this model at this time.”
He asked that the board put off making a decision at least until the students could return to what is familiar to them.
Melki had a similar take on the matter.
“I think our children need to go back to school the way it was, and we need more public input,” he said.
Melki added that about half of the people who called in to the last school board meeting, to comment on the restructuring, were district employees. Of the people who spoke in favor of the plan, only one does not work for the schools.
“I think we will better serve our students if we let them come back to school … and ease into it … let the public prepare for it,” he said.
School board Secretary Jessica Lanave said postponing the change may be more difficult. This way, students return to “a cleaner slate.”
Lanave also pointed out that the district’s five elementary schools are often in competition with one another.
“We have five different schools that have a rivalry,” she said. “This is an opportunity to change our perspective.”
The full discussion and public comment can be viewed on the Swartz Creek Board of Education channel on YouTube at www.youtube.com/watch?v=pwAmfPxVNOQ.