By Heather Graves
GREEN BAY – A discussion at the Monday, Oct. 21, school board meeting regarding the possible consolidation of Jefferson and Fort Howard elementary schools on Green Bay’s west side ended with more questions than answers.
This left parents, staff and community members frustrated. School board members apologized for a lack of transparency.
“I’m emotional because this is my family’s life that is on the line right now,” said parent Melody Linsmeyer. “I’m very angry on how this has been handled. This has taken over my life for the last month. I was out there handing out flyers, stopping parents, posting everywhere I can because it’s important to me, but it has taken over my life and I just want answers. It shouldn’t be this hard.”
The proposal is to possibly consolidate those two west side schools at the Fort Howard site and repurpose the Jefferson building into a west side Head Start location.
Following a lengthy discussion that nearly extended into the early morning hours of Tuesday, trustees decided to push the vote to a special board meeting Monday, Oct. 28, to gather more information and provide those details to the community.
“I won’t deny that it has been a struggle for us as a board and as a district to ensure that there is consistent, equable communication with all of us,” said board member Kristina Shelton. “Why didn’t we start with the staff? I have shared this with other board members as well saying that we have really teed ourselves up for not so great of an outcome right from the beginning. It was a misstep, you are absolutely right.”
Board Vice President Andrew Becker said he is embarrassed on how things have been handled and that the lack of transparency throughout the process, from the Redesign 2020 survey questions last spring, to the parent informational letter last month has put the board in its current position.
“I think we would be in a better place now if we would have been more forthcoming, even if people would have been upset longer because it would have started sooner, but maybe we would have been in a better place now,” Becker said.
Linsmeyer, who currently has a kindergartener at Jefferson, said she is disappointed in the lack of communication from the board.
“It’s not just a misstep of not including the staff, it’s a misstep that you guys are not communicating,” Linsmeyer said. “How are you representing this community if you aren’t even talking to each other? And whether that is the district to the board or between board members – because when I call my board members for answers because I’m worried about what’s going on or what potentially could be going in my school and they don’t have answers or they don’t have common knowledge between each other, all that does is increase worry in me. And I’m up at night worrying.”
Linsmeyer’s concerns were echoed by former Jefferson principal Mary Ann Anderson.
“It’s right to do the right thing and you aren’t doing the right thing,” Anderson said. “This is very unfair.”
Regardless of how the topic got to the board table, District Superintendent Michelle Langenfeld said the underlying issue remains, the district is facing a significant decline in enrollment at west side elementary schools, which is why the board is discussing consolidation.
“There are 1,000 empty seats in elementary on the west side,” Langenfeld said. “By combining Fort Howard and Jefferson together, there is some overhead cost that can be repurposed and reinvested in children and families.”
Currently, there are 115 students enrolled at Jefferson, which has a capacity of 165 students. Forty-three Jefferson attendance-area students choose to attend another district school, a parochial school or open-enroll out of the district.
Over the last seven years, enrollment at Jefferson has seen a continuous decline.
Neighboring west side schools Fort Howard and Elmore have also seen this consistent decline.
Fort Howard’s current enrollment is 183 with a capacity of 269. At Fort Howard, there are currently nine unused classrooms.
Elmore has an enrollment of 275 with a capacity of 318.
It’s a requirement of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) the district report per-pupil expenditures by school to the state Department of Public Instruction.
Because of Jefferson’s lower enrollment verses its capacity, Jefferson’s per-pupil budgeted expenditures of $18,752 are significantly higher than the majority of elementary schools in the district.
Langenfeld said the guiding force behind the consolidation plan is doing what’s best for all students in the district while dealing with the west side school’s declining enrollment.
“As an administration, we felt it important to look at the data, understand the levels of enrollment and provide the board with the understanding of what could be,” Langenfeld said. “As I look at the service and support of children, I can see that there is no other place in this district where we would not have to break a school apart and leave some and move some. But you can move the entire school (Jefferson), you can bring all the children and services along together.”
Board member Eric Vanden Heuvel said he favors consolidation.
“When I have sat at this board table for the short time that I have, I hear about the class size issues we have all over the district, when I hear about the lack of mental health services all over the district, when I hear the lack of dyslexia supports for many of our kids in our district, when I hear about rising health care costs that we are passing on to our teachers – all of those things require more resources and there is not enough money coming in the door,” Vanden Heuvel said. “Public education is not funded to the level that we need it. And so when I’m presented with a solution, albeit unpopular with some people and I appreciate the love that you have for your school, but the solution that is on table provides a quality education at one of our highest performing schools in the district.”
Langenfeld said at the end of the day it’s a board decision.
“Collectively, we’ve tried to bring forward what we see as possibility to serve children and families not only today, but into the future,” Langenfeld said.