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We need a little bit of urgency on elementary schools’ future: Editorial

Posted 2/5/20

No one wants to make a mistake, especially when it comes to educating our young people and  spending millions of dollars.

But the pace at which the Middletown Area School Board is addressing …

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We need a little bit of urgency on elementary schools’ future: Editorial

Posted

No one wants to make a mistake, especially when it comes to educating our young people and  spending millions of dollars.

But the pace at which the Middletown Area School Board is addressing the needs of the district’s elementary schools is beginning to concern us a bit.

Less than a year ago, we stated that it was wise for the district to take its time to weigh the best course of action. Consider this from our Feb. 20, 2019 editorial:

“This decision will affect the future of the district for years, both financially and educationally. These are the tough, long-lasting decisions that make school board elections so important, and everyone involved wants the ‘correct’ decision to be made. The challenge is, what that ‘correct’ decision is might not be evident for years, if ever.”

That has not changed. “Correct” as it relates to the size and scope of the district in the next decade is certainly a moving target.

In the year since we published the editorial, the district has received enrollment projections that help provide a clearer picture of what it’s up against, however. District enrollment for grades kindergarten through 5 is supposed to spike in 2023, and board President Linda Mehaffie said at the Jan. 21 meeting that a new building could not be ready by then.

The short-term solution that Mehaffie suggested is moving fifth-graders from the district’s three elementaries to the middle school, which would require adding modular classroom trailers to that building.

“It’s a lot of money, a lot of money to build a school and then three years four years five years down the road we don’t need that school,” Mehaffie said.

And we agree.

But schools can’t be built overnight. And those same projections say there will be 1,239 elementary students in the 2029-30 school year, or 105 more students than now. So at some point a decision is going to need to be made.

As Superintendent Lori Suski pointed out, even if the district can get through the enrollment crunch without a new building, renovations are still needed at the Kunkel and Fink buildings.

On top of the brick and mortar, there is the discussion of what the education system should look like. School officials discuss a “center-based” model, where elementary students in one or more grades are all housed in one building, regardless of where they live in the district.

That would put an end to the neighborhood schools.

A district survey in February 2019 found more than 60 percent of residents wanted to keep the status quo of Fink, Kunkel and Reid over the center-based model.

But now the board wants to do another survey, which could come out this week.

“Some of the board members felt that there were constituents who did not really understand what a centers-based model is. Therefore, they have asked me to design another survey that explains the model in detail,” Suski told the Press & Journal when asked about the reason for  a second survey.

What if those who took the survey do understand it, and it’s just that they don’t want a center-based model? Will undertaking another survey provide a springboard to slant the results some officials would prefer? And if the results are the same as the first, with residents clearly preferring to keep the status quo, will another call be sounded for more public assessment? If so, what was the point of this survey?

We asked Mehaffie point blank what more the board needs to know to make building decisions. She said members “need to know what are we trying to solve” — an “enrollment challenge” or whether to embrace the center-based model.

OK. So what is the board doing to determine what it is trying to resolve? There are two new board members, and they need to get up to speed on such an important issue. We understand that.

However, “the board is in no hurry to make a decision,” Mehaffie told the Press & Journal. “We all want to be informed and do the best for the students and be fiscally responsible at the same time.”

When will that be? The target will always be moving, and the future always has uncertainty.

This is not an easy choice, and care must be taken. But we don’t want paralysis by analysis.

We hope after the survey is complete that the board will move ahead with some direction and make these tough choices. Public input has value, but in the long run, it is up to the board’s nine members to decide. It’s why we elected them.