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School board votes 4-3 to consolidate Jefferson and Fort Howard

By Heather Graves

GREEN BAY – It was an emotional ending when many Jefferson Elementary School parents, staff and community members left the school board meeting in tears following the 4-to-3 decision to close Jefferson and consolidate it with Fort Howard Elementary School beginning with the 2020-21 school year.

“I didn’t study education in college. I’ve never held public office. I’ve never had to balance a budget. I’ve never had to answer to constitutes. But I’ve been around for 72 years and I know what’s right and wrong, and this isn’t right,” said Jefferson volunteer Mike Phillips at a special school board meeting Monday, Oct. 28. “I love these kids and I love this school.”

Following 3 1/2 hours of discussion, board members approved the consolidation of the two west side elementary schools, and repurposing of the Jefferson building into a west side Head Start Learning Center.

Jefferson has the lowest enrollment of the district’s 26 elementary schools – with just 115 students. 

By combining with Fort Howard, district staff said it will save the district more than $300,000 annually, since Head Start is 100-percent federally funded.

Brenda Warren, Katie Maloney, Laura McCoy and Eric Vanden Heuvel voted “yes” on consolidation, while Kristina Shelton, Andrew Becker and Rhonda Sitnikau voted “no.”

Becker said he went into Monday’s meeting with the reality the consolidation proposal likely had board majority support. 

Before the vote, Becker proposed a variety of amendments to the motion to provide families with what he described as a better understanding of what the consolidation will look like.

“What my focus is, at the end of the day, is what guarantees what we are actually going to do? That means putting it down in writing and in the motion tonight,” Becker said. “And it’s not for the lack of trust in administration, but because people need their answers in writing, and administration, including a future superintendent that will be overseeing this, deserves the guidance of knowing exactly what the board meant, and not having to guess.”

The amendments include all current Jefferson staff will be guaranteed at their current hours and pay; transportation, consisting of at a minimum hub busing, be offered with no specified end date; a student support staff full-time equivalent (FTE) of 7.85 be guaranteed with no specified end date; any construction, with the exception of parking lots, be prohibited until the end of the school year; and the total combined FTE between social worker and school counselor be at least 2.5 with no specified end date.

Shelton expressed her frustration with the lack of information throughout the process.

“I feel like we are in the weeds,” Shelton said. “We should have been having these conversations two months ago. I feel like the process has been upside down. These are things we should have been talking about in July, not at the final hour. It is so inefficient. It’s another example of how we have not done the pre-work. And I’m not pointing fingers because I’m part of the institution too. But we have to do a better job. I’m asking us all to look introspective, and all of us to sit here and think about it.”

All amendments were approved and attached to the approved consolidation motion.

Vanden Heuvel supported the consolidation, and said while it was an extremely difficult decision, he felt like it was the right one for the district as a whole.

“This is the first of many difficult decisions this board will face in the coming months,” Vanden Heuvel said.

McCoy echoed Vanden Heuvel’s struggle with the decision, but also believes it’s the right one. 

“If I thought for one second that the children at Jefferson couldn’t get at least an equal education at Fort Howard, I would not be voting this way,” McCoy said. “But I feel like they can, I know they can. Fort Howard is a good school. Those children will be looked after there, and I’m committed to seeing and making sure that happens.”

Following the vote, Jefferson supporters huddled in the hallway, noticeably emotional by the board’s decision.

Many left the district building in tears.

As the board has now designated the Jefferson Elementary School building as the location for the west side Head Start Learning Center, district staff will complete the federal grant application process to receive funds for the remodeling and operation costs.

District staff expects a final decision on that sometime in January.

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