Proposed school closings in Grosse Pointe: 1 in north end, 1 in south, panel reveals

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News
Scenarios for school closures in the Grosse Pointe school district.

Grosse Pointe Woods — School officials in the Grosse Pointe Public School System are recommending the closure of either Poupard or Mason elementary schools in the north end of the district and the closure of Maire or Trombly elementary schools in the south end.

No decisions were made Thursday night about school closures, but officials presented their ideas to a Blue Ribbon Committee of parents, school officials and local taxpayers as the group and district attempt to help the school board address long-declining enrollment.

Jon Dean, deputy superintendent of educational services, said because two other north-end elementary schools, Ferry and Monteith, each can hold 600 kids, the district does not recommend closing those schools because there is not enough room in the other elementary schools to move students.

"Poupard or Mason must be closed," Dean said.

If Poupard, located in Harper Woods, is closed, the district recommends providing transportation to those students to new schools.

"It is our only Title 1 school," Dean said.

The Grosse Pointe Public School System has identified district schools it recommended for possible closure. No decision was made at a public meeting Thursday, and the district said more meetings are set to consider parents' concerns.

The Blue Ribbon Committee considered eight options offered by the district:

•Option A would close Mason and Barnes, and turn Kerby into an early childhood center (ECC)

•Option B would close Poupard and Barnes; convert Kerby to an ECC

•Option C would close Barnes, Mason and Trombly; convert Kerby to an ECC

•Option D would close Barnes, Poupard and Trombly; convert Kerby to an ECC

•Option E would close Trombly and Mason; expand ECC at Barnes

•Option F would close Trombly and Poupard, expand ECC at Barnes

•Option G would close Maire, Mason and Trombly; expand ECC at Barnes

•Option H would close Maire, Trombly and Poupard; expand ECC at Barnes

At the end of the meeting, the committee took an informal survey about the suggested closures.

About 74.5% recommended closing Mason while 25.5% wanted to close Poupard. Nearly 59% wanted to close two schools in the south end while 41.2% advocated closing one school there.

About 67% wanted Kerby turned into an early childhood center while 33.2% wanted Barnes to expand its current center.

The discussions to close schools comes after 15 years of declining enrollment and a move to right-size the district without opening its doors to Schools of Choice students.

Lynn Weber said she has come to every meeting held by the district related to school closures and reconfigurations. Weber has two elementary-age children and said she is glad she came to Thursday's meeting.

"To see the names is pretty scary," Weber said. "No one is going to be happy. I don't think they have done their due diligence. This is the first time I have had a piece of paper with information and numbers on it."

Superintendent Gary Niehaus said the district would provide operational savings, bond savings and projected land value for each school under consideration to close. 

The goal is to have at least $1 million a year in savings and be at least 80% capacity at as many schools as possible, Niehaus said.

Niehaus told the crowd of about 100 people Thursday that whenever a district adds or subtracts from its building stock, school boundaries change.

"If the boundaries change, we may have saved a school but you may not be in the same attendance boundary as before, Niehaus said.

Members of the Blue Ribbon Committee also were asked to consider where to place an expanded early childhood center, with the district recommending Kerby or Barnes. 

Each of the proposed options detailed new school configurations, including where students from a closed school would be routed and financial savings including land value, bond savings and operational savings.

The land value of any buildings closed ranges from $3.9 million to $6.4 million. Operations savings range from $1.3 million to $1.9 million, and bond savings range from $9.1 million to $15.5 million.

Declining K-12 enrollment has translated into financial losses for the affluent Metro Detroit district, school officials said. With each student equal to around $10,000 in school revenue, the district's average 100-student drop per year is $1 million lost. 

Grosse Pointe's schools are not alonel. Statewide K-12 student enrollment has been on the decline for years. Enrollment is forecast to drop another 10% through 2025 in southeast Michigan. 

But after years of watching enrollment drop in their own district, Grosse Pointe parents, taxpayers and school officials now are grappling with how to balance the district and set a deadline for June 30 so the school system can save between $1 million and $2 million annually.

The idea of closing elementary schools and moving fifth-grade students into middle school buildings, two concepts under consideration by school officials, has produced emotional and often caustic debate in the community and across social media.

Options include closing at least two of the district's nine elementary schools and reconfiguring grades across the district, such as moving fifth graders out of elementary school and into the middle schools that currently serve grades 6-8.

Savings would come from closing buildings and fewer staff, school officials said.

The district's peak population in recent years was in the 2004-05 school year, when about 8,930 students attended. About 7,600 students are enrolled this school year across 14 school buildings.

The district will host more town halls through May to gather community input on the reconfiguration work of the committee.

Building closures or grade reconfigurations will not occur before the 2020-21 school year.

School board president Brian Summerfield said maintaining the nine elementary schools, three middle schools, two high schools and one early childhood center will not be considered.

A K-6 and 7-12 configuration also will not be considered, Summerfield said. Neither high school will be closed and high school boundaries will not change.

Summerfield said the district might be the last "mature district" in Metro Detroit to go through the painful process of closing schools due to a declining student population.

The board will consider many factors when deciding whether to close a school, Summerfield said, such as location and size.

A building analysis by the district said capacity ranges from 55% to 85% at the nine elementary schools, from 69% to 86% in the three middle schools and 54% to 73% at the two high schools.

A closed building could be mothballed, repurposed or sold, Summerfield said.

The board of education also will not consider Schools of Choice, an option to open its doors to neighboring school districts' students and their per-pupil foundation grant from the state, school officials said.

Board treasurer Judy Gafa, who said she was speaking for herself and not the board, said many people in Grosse Pointe "firmly believe they pay their taxes for their schools, and our children should attend those schools."

Choice, Gafa said, creates flight and a pattern of moving. 

The district, which has its own enrollment eligibility investigation office and tip line for suspected student scofflaws coming from other districts, is 74% white and 16.5% African American. One of its high schools is 28.3% black.

The district boundary lines include all five Grosse Pointe communities and a portion of Harper Woods, a community that is 59% black.

School closures will provide the district savings in the number of jobs eliminated, Gafa said, from custodians to teachers to principals. The goal will be to allow teachers to retire and the district will not replace them over time, she said.

The district considers itself a walkable district but will not provide transportation when schools close for general education students, another issue that raises concerns for some parents.

Town hall conversations

The Grosse Pointe Public School System is holding town hall meetings in April and May to discuss its reconfiguration proposals. All begin at 6:30 p.m.

April 24: North High

April 25: Kerby

April 29: Mason

April 30: South High

May 1: Richard

May 2: Ferry

May 6: Parcells 

May 7: Brownell

May 8: Monteith

May 9: Maire

May 14: Trombly

May 15: Poupard

May 16: Defer

May 21: Pierce

May 22: Barnes