MONTICELLO — The second public hearing for the option to consolidate or renovate was held in the Twin Lakes High School auditorium Wednesday evening with an opening statement by School Board President Shane Hanna and a presentation by business manager, Melissa Johnson and Superintendent Debbie Metzger. The public was invited to speak, ask questions and receive answers from the school board with a time limit of 15 minutes.

Hanna began the proceedings by saying, “Most of the comments regarding smaller schools and tight-knit communities cannot be argued with. Our challenges as a community are to try to figure out how to pay for facility upgrades and teacher raises within a restricted budget.”

He explained how spending for schools changed during the Mitch Daniels administration and how that works for the school corporations. He said the amount received from the state fluctuates twice a year and is reset every two years. “Most of the costs were put on the backs of our teachers,” he said. He believes the system was meant to force schools to consolidate.

Twin Lakes is one of the lowest paying school corporations for teachers, making it difficult to compete with area corporations in attracting and keeping teachers.

“Our board believes in being fiscally responsible,” he said. “We also believe in order to have the best educational system we can provide, we have to pay the main tools that we use to accomplish this and that’s our teachers.”

Hanna released a written statement after the meeting, which states, “As Twin Lakes School Corporation enrollment continues to decline, teacher pay lags behind other area schools and outdated facilities require costly upgrades, our district resources are stretched more than ever.

“Our community must identify a path forward to modernize our elementary school buildings so that we may provide the best learning environment for all students and increase teacher compensation to ensure we are retaining and attracting the highest-quality educators. As we continue to assess the best option for our district, we deeply value hearing from a variety of voices and perspectives.”

A few teachers stepped up to speak at the hearing. The first to speak was Ann True, a fourth grade teacher at Oaklawn, and a Twin Lakes graduate. She said she is in her 25th year of teaching and explained that she began her career at a “mega” school and not once did she feel overwhelmed. “I felt encouraged and adequately prepared,” she said. “Of course we don’t want the schools to close, but I’m 100% in favor of doing what’s best for the kids. If that’s consolidation, I’m 100% for it.”

Stephanie McCloskey, a 23-year teacher said Oaklawn has been her home for 20 years. “Closing does tug at the heart strings,” she said, but if doing what’s best for the kids is consolidation, she is for it.

Christy Runyon has been teaching for 30 years at Twin Lakes and was teaching at Woodlawn when it was closed. “It’s hard. I get it,” she said. She said when she first heard about consolidating, she felt torn about it. After some “deep soul searching” she could see benefits to the plan; pooling resources rather than having them spread thin is better for the students.

Jen Deniston said she is a special education teacher at Benton Central and she lives in Monticello. The reason she is at Benton Central is the salary. She did teach at Meadowlawn prior to Benton Central. She said the consolidation discussion should have been done a decade ago. “I believe in Twin Lakes and fully support option 1 with the consolidation of the elementary schools,” she said.

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The teachers talked about the turn around for teachers due to the low salaries. They also talked about the mental health issues children are going through and the need for more counselors and instructional coaches.

Beth Lyons, in her 30th year in education, said, “Each building is wonderful and all teachers work hard for their students.” She said she moved from Woodlawn to Oaklawn 14 years ago, and closing Woodlawn turned out to be what was best.

Diana Crawford, an instructional coach for 25 years at Oaklawn, said, “Sometimes letting go is best for the greater good.” She said she supports the consolidation plan.

Jen Craig, the food service director at Twin Lakes, explained issues they have at both Oaklawn and Eastlawn schools with space and limited ability to add needed space. There are storage issues, workspace issues.

She said they have the same number of staff at Eastlawn, which serves 170 students as they do at Oaklawn, which serves 350, causing issues with time constraints. With the time allotted for lunches, they have only four to five seconds per student to get through the line and that isn’t enough time.

There were also a number of people asking to have a voice in the decision by having a referendum. Jeff Russo said Benton Central did not want to close schools but faced the same issues as Twin Lakes. He said consolidation fixed the problem for a while then they had to also have a referendum, and now they are facing the same issues again. “You have to look into the future,” he said. He suggested they make a list of pros and cons before coming up with a decision.

Theresa McCall, an aide at Eastlawn, said she has seen over and over again the success of the students from that school. “I don’t understand why you would want to change that,” she said.

A few people who had spoken at the regular school board meeting, again stepped up to the microphone to address the school board. Questions were asked, including how many years will it be before the corporation sees the savings if they consolidate compared to the number of years it will take for the referendum as far as the ability to increase teacher salaries. Hanna said the amount of time will be about the same.

Referendums can be added to a primary ballot or a general election ballot without cost to the corporation; however, if they chose to have a special election instead of waiting for 2024, the corporation would have to pay for the costs.

A few speakers asked that the school board table a decision until after the first of January, when the school board will have new members. The school board has not decided when it will make a decision on the options according to Hanna. Everything is still in the preliminary planning stages.
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