By Bridgett Hernandez
Whitko School Board of Trustees met with administrators for a joint work session Feb. 6 to discuss next steps for the upcoming consolidation of the high school and middle school.
In January, the board voted 3-2 to reconfigure 7th-12th grade students at the South Whitley campus starting the 2018-2019 school year.
However, school board members now say that the motion only specified a location for the 2018-2019. According to school board vice president Carrie Hoffman (District 2), the board ultimately wants the consolidated school to be located at the Larwill campus.
So why move middle school students to South Whitley if the ultimate goal is to locate in Larwill?
According to school board president Jorell Tucker, the initial move “easily could have went to Larwill,” but if financing wasn’t secured for updating the Larwill campus, the school corporation would have been stuck shuffling students between the school in Larwill and the athletic facilities in South Whitley.
“We would have had to transport back and forth between the Larwill and South Whitley campus where we already have a competition gym, a football stadium, baseball fields, soccer fields, softball field, [etc.],” he said.
Now, Whitko is exploring options to secure that financing.
“We’re exploring all options with securing the funding for a truly centralized campus being at the Larwill site, but we can’t go forward with that unless we have the financing to supported by the taxpayers,” Tucker said.
Those options include the petition and remonstrance process or referendum.
“You’re looking at millions of dollars to do what needs to be done,” he said.
Some parents have expressed confusion and frustration at the school board’s approach to consolidation. Brian Hartman, of Pierceton, addressed the school board members and administrators with a presentation at the work session.
Hartman spoke on behalf of the Future of Whitko Schools Support Group. The group started on Facebook and has held its own meetings since the school board’s vote in January. Members are mostly from the north part of the school district.
Noting that Whitko has the highest tax rate of surrounding school districts, Hartman said a referendum would be unlikely to gain taxpayer support.
He would like to see the school board members revisit their vote to consolidate at the South Whitley campus or at least add language that specifies that it is a temporary answer and that the long-term goal is a Larwill campus.
“It is in the best interest of the entire school corporation to rethink this Jan. 15 decision. Re-vote it and get it corrected,” he said.
Parents raise concerns
Parents have also raised concerns about the level of safety that the South Whitley campus and the modular buildings that will house students will provide. In his presentation, Hartman noted that while the Larwill campus is ADA compliant, the South Whitley campus is not.
“If this was your child who was struggling, how upset would you be knowing there is a facility that could accommodate your child’s needs, yet the decision was made to boldly turn a blind eye to it?” Hartman asked the school board members and administrators.
Christi Gaerte, of Pierceton, has a ninth grade student at Whitko High School. The student recently suffered a broken leg and uses a wheelchair to get around. The student said getting around the school is a challenge because the wheelchair ramps are steep and hard to navigate.
Gaerte said she’s not against the consolidation or location; she just wants a safe environment for students.
“I think [the consolidation is] a great financial move for our corporation. It’s a logical step. I could care less if it was in South Whitley or it was in Larwill as long as it was the building that was safest for my child,” she said.
Patti Draper, of Larwill, has a sixth grade student at Whitko Middle School. Additionally, her daughter graduated from Whitko High School in 2012. Her daughter started using a wheelchair when she was a junior because of a neuro-muscular disease.
Even though she doesn’t have a child in the school who is mobility impaired, she remembers how her daughter struggled. She needed assistance to navigate the wheelchair ramps and lifts to get between classes.
“She lost her sense of independence,” Draper said.
She feels like the school board’s attention is focused on Whitko sports facilities, not “the bigger picture.”
“They’re not thinking about the safety and accessibility for everyone,” she said.