Low enrollment prompts SBCSC to “rightsize” district; some community members argue closing schools is not the answer

SOUTH BEND, Ind. – The South Bend Community School Corporation wants to “rightsize” the district—after enrollment numbers have continued to fall over the past fifteen years, and have hired the consulting firm HPM to help create a long-term master plan.

According to the district, eight of the fifteen elementary schools and four of the seven middle schools are below 75% capacity—and of the three high schools in the district—only Adams High School is above 60% capacity.

The district has also seen enrollment drop over the past fifteen years, and enrollment for 2024 is projected to be below the enrollment numbers for 2022.

The district says that “rightsizing” is the next step forward, which includes creating clear feeder programs that determine what schools students will go through and help improve services like transportation—as well as vacating school buildings that either have low-enrollment or have become too costly to maintain.

Buildings such as Clay High School, Warren Elementary and Jackson Middle School are some of the buildings that the district is looking to repurpose or close altogether.

The district’s Director of Planning Services Scott Leopold said “Whenever you’ve got school facilities that are deteriorating over time, you have to continually maintain them and keep them up to date, or they just become dilapidated. It’s important that we’re using that as kind of a big picture item. At the end of this process, we’ll have recommendations for projects that will occur over the next three or four years.”

The district has put together three different proposals for the future of the district, and want to hear from the public about the right path forward.

“We want to come forward with a recommendation that’s palatable to the community—so that’s why we’re collecting that community feedback,” said Leopold.

Scenario A would vacate Muessel and Warren Elementary Schools, leading to an overall 77% occupancy in all school buildings—saving the district roughly $548 thousand a year—though it would cost nearly $300 million.

Scenario B would lead to an 84% building occupancy and save the district $1.3 million annually—though it would cost over $260 million and close both Warren Elementary and Clay High School— leaving only Adams, Washington and Riley as the only high schools in the district.

Scenario C would save the district the most money per year—over $2 million—and lead to the most occupancy in the buildings—but it would still cost over $240 million and leave only two high schools in the district—vacating Warren, Jackson Middle School and Clay High School, and turn Riley into a middle school only.

Some argue closing these schools is ignoring the real issue:

“The biggest question should be—why are our parents and students leaving? A severe drop in enrollment has happened over the past ten years. The question we should be putting our energy to, how do we get our shoppers to come back to our excellent facilities, our excellent staff,” said Robert Smith.

Smith taught in South Bend schools and in Niles—and even ran for the School Board. He argued the district is too quick to close schools and that instead they should focus on trying to attract parents back into their schools, instead of thinking of them as line items on a budget.

“When you’re planning a facilities plan that’s going to be with us for years, where will we be if the enrollment keeps dropping? That’s a question,” Smith said.

The school district said that if any of these proposals are adopted, they will likely not go into effect until the 2024-2025 school year.

The district also has an online survey available for parents to leave their feedback, which can be found here: SBCSC - Facility Master Planning Survey #3 

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