ELKHART — School officials at Elkhart Community Schools are seeking the community’s input on ways to attract and retain students while being fiscally responsible.
Enrollment at Elkhart Community Schools, the largest school corporation in Elkhart County, has declined for the third straight year. The student population for the 2018-19 school year is listed at 12,573 – down 340 students from the previous year, which totaled 12,913, according to the most recent data reported by the Indiana Department of Education.
Since taking the post in January, Superintendent Steve Thalheimer said he’s been visiting all the school buildings and talking to patrons in the community for which many have suggested ways to make Elkhart schools better, particularly during the referendum campaign in the spring.
“There were a lot of people who were indicating that they haven’t felt the communication between the district and staff or the public at large has not been to the level that they would like it and they often felt they weren’t being heard regarding their ideas, suggestions or concerns,” Thalheimer said.
To that end, the school board recently adopted a communication plan for this fall to ensure those voices are heard, Thalheimer said. The initiative is called “Educating Right.”
“I know under (previous superintendent) Rob Haworth, there was a State of the Schools address that was given each year and one of the things I determined was that I think I need to be communicating with stakeholders more frequently,” he said.
During October, Thalheimer will conduct four public meetings across the district, updating the community on the fiscal status and cost-cutting measures and addressing district priorities for the year. Each meeting will conclude with Thalheimer seeking the community’s input by using a social media-like app called Thoughtexchange.
Through Thoughtexchange, participants will be asked in 300 characters or less to share ideas for fiscal responsibility and for attracting and retaining students. All participation is anonymous. After entering ideas, participants then move to the next screen where they’ll be able to rank ideas presented by others on a scale of 1 to 5 stars.
“So it’s a little bit of a crowdsourcing way to get ideas from the community as a whole,” Thalheimer said. “There’s no back and forth with comments, it’s simply, here’s my thought, and then people can provide their input of whether they like those ideas or not by the way they rate them, which then provides us a good sense of what ideas people are gravitating toward and maybe what the consensus in the community is.”
The Thoughtexchanges will close on Oct. 31.
During the May primary, district voters turned down an operating referendum that would have generated almost $16 million over eight years with a primary goal of helping to attract and retain teachers and staff by increasing pay and benefit. It would have also raised property taxes.
Asked whether the community meetings would lead to pushing for another referendum, Thalheimer said, “given the financial challenges the district is facing and that nothing has happened in the last biennium to drastically improve the school funding situation, that if we would pursue a referendum in a couple of years, which would seem highly likely, we need to engage in the conversation.”
“I’m coming in new to the position and wanting to listen to people and if people have these ideas of what we need to do and we have a sensible and rational conversation about that, then that’s going to be all the better for the students and the district as a whole,” he said.
For example, Thalheimer said one idea that people suggested to him during the referendum campaign was to close a school building. Before executing that, he said, “we need to look at that and look at it factually and understand the ramifications for a community if they were going to have a building closed and what are the actual savings for doing such a move.”
If a referendum doesn’t pass, a district must wait two years before putting another one on the ballot. A district is allowed to pursue a referendum earlier through a petition process, – a measure Thalheimer said the district won’t take.
“We want to make sure we are taking the time to listen and analyze internally what we can do to make sure we really have our costs contained and have been looking at administration and rightsizing our staffing,” Thalheimer said. “So, we know that’s work that needs to be done and we’re truly interested in the ideas from the community and what people are leaning toward us doing, and that takes more than just a year to turn around. We want to engage in the process.”
Community meetings will be held: Monday, Oct. 7 at 6:30 p.m. at St. James AME; Tuesday, Oct. 15 at 6:30 p.m. at Bristol Elementary; Wednesday, Oct. 16 at 6:30 p.m. at Mary Feeser Elementary and Thursday, Oct. 17 at 6:30 p.m. at West Side Middle School.
• Monday, Oct. 7 at 6:30 p.m. at St. James AME
• Tuesday, Oct. 15 at 6:30 p.m. at Bristol Elementary
• Wednesday, Oct. 16 at 6:30 p.m. at Mary Feeser Elementary
• Thursday, Oct. 17 at 6:30 p.m. at West Side Middle School