Community forum focuses on Southeast schools


KYANA — Community members weighed in on the Southeast Dubois County School Corporation Wednesday night at the first of two community forums included in a financial feasibility study the school district is undergoing.

For the last several years, the corporation has been operating in deficit spending, a fact that led the school board in December to enter into an agreement with Brookston-based Administrator Assistance to conduct a financial feasibility study for the corporation.

Southeast Dubois is not the only local school corporation to partner with Administrator Assistance. In 2015, Northeast Dubois partnered with the company for a similar study, which led to that corporation seeking a general fund referendum — now called an education fund referendum — to acquire additional funding through a property tax increase, as well as other options the corporation has explored in the years since the study.

In the weeks since the Southeast Dubois board approved its partnership with Administrator Assistance, Joan Keller and Bruce Hatton — two school administrators turned Administrator Assistance consultants — have spent hours in the schools and community talking to school staff, students and community members about the corporation’s strengths, challenges and goals. Wednesday night’s forum continued the discussion.

The theme of the evening seemed to be all the positives going on around the corporation.

“I can tell you, being from the outside, your school system is held in high regard,” said Keller, who was superintendent at North Spencer for several years.

Comments from the roughly 70 attendees reflected that. Lee Begle, a former principal in the Southeast Dubois corporation, mentioned the strong community support for the school system and parental involvement in students’ education as a positive.

“That was a real pillar of success — the support we got at home,” Begle said.

Lisa Striegel, who has children at Forest Park Junior-Senior High School, said she likes that art and music are still taught in the corporation’s elementary schools by licensed teachers. Striegel works in education and has seen those programs cut at other corporations around the state.

“We need to give our students a well-rounded education, and art and music are part of that,” Striegel said.

Other positives included the emphasis on providing teachers with up-to-date resources and teacher materials, and small class sizes. And several people mentioned the many successes the corporation enjoys, such as high standardized test scores and accountability grades, strong athletics and consistent high rankings in academic competitions.

Hatton explained that one of the concerns he’s heard from school administrators — and a major reason for conducting the study — is that the standard of success has been so high that administrators now are wondering how to keep the status quo as changes in the community lead to lower enrollment, and thus less funding for the school. In Indiana, education is funded primarily by tuition from the state that is awarded on a per-child basis. Other costs schools incur — such as construction, maintenance and transportation — are funded through local property taxes.

During the portion of the conversation dedicated to challenges the school is facing, teacher pay and benefits came up, as did staff turnover that results from compensation packages at Southeast Dubois not competing with other nearby schools.

“If Southeast wants to retain and recruit quality teachers, they’re going to have to raise [pay and benefits] because the school corporations around here offer a whole lot more,” Striegel said, adding that she knows of a few colleagues who turned down jobs in the corporation because the pay was too low compared to what they made at other area schools.

The increased use of technology, especially at Cedar Crest Intermediate where the fully online Summit Learning platform is used, also came up as a challenge.

“In our rural community, not everybody has access to the internet at their homes,” said Charles Crowley, who has students at Pine Ridge, Cedar Crest and Forest Park.

Crowley and his family live in Bretzville and are among those who do not have access to reliable internet at their home.

The forum concluded with a discussion of goals attendees have for education at Southeast Dubois. Several people mentioned making sure the students are exposed to a variety of career opportunities and post-secondary options outside of traditional college.

“Just to show the kids what is a job that people do,” said Lisa Niehaus, who has children in sixth and second grades. “I think that’s important.”

Niehaus said she also wants to see students have the opportunity to work in teams regularly and to make presentations so they gain confidence in public speaking and conversations.

“I see a lot of kids who don’t seem very confident, and that’s concerning,” she said.

Parents also expressed a desire for students to learn basic life skills, such as how to balance a checkbook and figure interest rates.

Darlene Sitzman pointed out the need for students to develop into people who can learn and adapt to change.

“We can instill a joy of learning in them and teach them how they learn best,” she said. “And that’s what they get when they have different experiences with different teachers and teaching styles — what works for me, and how do I adapt to this so I can learn best? Kids need to learn to take responsibility.”

The forum ended with the conclusion that there is a lot of good going on at Southeast Dubois, and there’s nothing the community is willing to give up on that front. Instead, they want to find ways to make it even better.

The next community forum is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Monday at Forest Park — 1440 Michigan St., Ferdinand — and will have a similar structure to Wednesday’s forum. Following the forums, Administrator Assistance will conduct an online survey to gather additional feedback. The process will end with a report from Administrator Assistance that includes the findings from Keller and Hatton’s research and interviews, as well as a series of options the schools board and administrators can consider.

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