LARWILL — “Whatever happens tonight, tomorrow we’re still going to be Whitko.”
That was the resounding sentiment at the Whitko school board meeting Monday where the trustees voted to close Whitko Middle School in Larwill and consolidate students to Whitko High School in South Whitley, seven miles south.
The consolidation will go into effect for the 2018-2019 school year. The school corporation will then consist of three schools – Pierceton Elementary School, South Whitley Elementary School and a combined middle and high school, also in South Whitley.
In December, the community was outraged when the board announced that a consolidation was imminent due to declining enrollment and budgetary constraints. Since then, public discourse on the matter has been a tug of war between whether to locate the combined middle and high school in Larwill or South Whitley.
Monday, due to poor winter weather conditions, Whitko schools closed two hours early and canceled all after-school activities – except for the board meeting. However, that didn’t stop more than 100 people from filling the seats of the lecture hall at Whitko Middle School.
The board took comments from a half dozen people on the issue, including South Whitley Town Council President Randy Cokl, who petitioned the board not to close the high school.
“Moving four grades to another school while busing students back and forth to practices seems foolish,” he said.
Cokl also encouraged the board to invest in reversing the trend of declining enrollment with innovative programming and partnering with universities and employers to create career pathways.
After a briefing on Whitko High School, Principal John Snyder addressed the audience on the issue of consolidation.
“Whatever decision is made tonight, I would ask as someone who is leading the team into the future of our school corporation that no matter where it’s at, that I ask for your prayers, your support and your trust,” he said.
Three law enforcement officers were present at the meeting. Mikel VanDevender, marshal of the South Whitley Police Department, said the increased presence was a precautionary measure due to the tension surrounding the consolidation. In December, a man was removed from the meeting during a chaotic public hearing on the issue.
Ultimately, the board’s 3-2 vote to close Whitko Middle School was met only with silent resignation. The decision was clearly a hard one for the trustees, several of whom looked visibly uncomfortable. Carrie Hoffman, who represents District 2 and voted in favor of the plan, covered her face with her hands moments before the vote.
“I’m clearly a mess right now,” she said.
Superintendent Steve Clason said there are funds to complete phase one or “getting the doors open” before the start of the 2018-2019 school year. Funding any capital projects beyond that would require further discussion, he said.
School board president Jorell Tucker said that minimum construction was needed at the high school in order to accommodate the middle school students. All modifications will be complete before the start of the 2018-2019 school year, he added.
The school board also voted to not renew the contracts for Whitko Middle School principal, Eugene Sweeney, and vice principal, Monica Stoppenhagen, as part of the school corporation’s cost savings plan, Clason said.