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 At the June 24 Grosse Pointe Public School System Board of Education meeting, school board President Brian Summerfield, center, discusses the Michigan Department of Civil Rights summary report with MDCR Executive Director Agustin Arbulu, standing, as school board Vice President Margaret Weertz, left, and Superintendent Gary Niehaus listen.

At the June 24 Grosse Pointe Public School System Board of Education meeting, school board President Brian Summerfield, center, discusses the Michigan Department of Civil Rights summary report with MDCR Executive Director Agustin Arbulu, standing, as school board Vice President Margaret Weertz, left, and Superintendent Gary Niehaus listen.

Photo by Donna Agusti

School board votes to close Trombly and Poupard

School board votes to close Trombly and Poupard

By: Maria Allard | Grosse Pointe Times | Published June 25, 2019

GROSSE POINTE FARMS — Families knew it was coming, but there were still tears and hurt feelings.

At the June 24 Grosse Pointe Public School System Board of Education meeting, the school board voted 5-2 to approve a resolution to close Trombly Elementary School and Poupard Elementary School at the end of the 2019-20 school year. The students will be relocated to other schools within the district.

Closing Trombly, located in Grosse Pointe Park, and Poupard, located in Harper Woods, will save the district approximately $1.1 million. Board members Brian Summerfield, Margaret Weertz, Judy Gafa, Kathleen Abke and Christopher Lee voted in favor of the school closings. Cindy Pangborn and Christopher Profeta voted against.

Regarding which schools to close, Summerfield said he based his decision on several factors, including building capacity, minimizing the crossing of main roads, building configuration, reuse of the closed buildings, square footage, historical trends, the current population, the distance between other schools, the security of the buildings, the cost to maintain the buildings, demographics and sale value.

Four different reconfiguration scenarios were presented at town hall meetings this spring.

For several months, school officials have talked about closing two elementary schools. Mason Elementary School in Grosse Pointe Woods and Maire Elementary School in Grosse Pointe City also were considered, but those schools will remain open at this time.

The school closings are part of a district reconfiguration plan that has been in the works for several months as school officials deal with declining enrollment, which has caused some schools not to be at their full capacity, costing the district money. School districts also receive less per-pupil funding from the state when enrollment decreases, which has impacted the district negatively.

Earlier this year, the school board asked the administration to consider a district reconfiguration plan. With that, a Blue Ribbon Committee came together to study the reconfiguration plan and assist with the process. The committee consists of GPPSS employees, school board members, parents and community members without children in the district.

The reconfiguration process has taken an emotional toll on the community. Many residents are worried about how a closed school will affect their property values. Children walking across busy intersections to get to school also is a concern.

The school board voted on the school closures, though Agustin Arbulu, executive director of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, recommended that school officials “extend, or restart, the deliberation period on the reconfiguration with an eye to creating a more inclusive and transparent process.” This recommendation was made after MDCR representatives held four listening sessions to hear feedback from residents regarding how school officials handled the reconfiguration process.

“None of us wants to close schools,” Abke said. “This has been extremely difficult.”

At Monday’s meeting, the school board also voted 6-1 on a resolution to adopt a K-4, five-eight grade configuration effective the beginning of the 2020-21 school year. The elementary schools will now include grades K-4 and the middle schools will include grades five-eight.

Pangborn was the lone vote against moving fifth grade students to the middle school. The configuration of grades nine-12 at the high school level will continue.

Board members in favor of the five-eight middle school concept said it provides an easier transition for students entering middle school. Additionally, it will allow educators the opportunity to provide more class offerings, including electives, to middle school students.

“I was a little worried about moving fifth grade up into the middle school. I know there were parents in the audience who were very concerned about moving fifth grade up into the middle school,” Gafa said. “I talked to our middle school principals. I talked to our elementary school teachers. I talked to our middle school teachers. I talked to the counselors. I talked to the school psychologist. And I said, ‘Can we do this? Will this work?’ … Almost every single one of them said ‘yes,’ because they’re teachers and they care and they’re going to take care of our kids.”

Weertz said she “wholeheartedly” supports the five-eight middle school concept.

“I really feel strongly in my heart that the middle school experience needs to have a refocus. We need to put a lot of attention there,” Weertz said. “Middle school kids are experiencing high levels of anxiety and depression and they need more attention. And they need also to explore and to have electives. … I want us to refocus on middle schools, and I think this is an educational opportunity for our middle schools. … I think it’s going to be a fabulous change in our district.”

Pangborn wanted to table voting on the grade-level reconfiguration and the school closures.

“Because of what Dr. Arbulu had said this evening and because of the report ... and because he has given us suggestions based on our asking him to come here and evaluate, I think that we should take heed to what he has said, and that we should table both (the) approval of resolution for grade reconfiguration and approval of resolution for elementary schools closings until such time as we can review his report and come up with a better plan that does not tear apart our community,” Pangborn said.

Public feedback
Prior to the votes, several residents addressed their concerns during the public comments portion of the meeting regarding the school closures and grade-level reconfiguration. Grosse Pointe Education Association President Mike Rennell spoke in support of the school board.

“I just want to commend this board on your due diligence and what you have done. This process started over a year and a half ago. You said, ‘Let’s create a process,’ which was with the Blue Ribbon Committee … to come up with some plans.”

Renell said the board listened to the community at open houses, at multiple board meetings and through emails.

“(Superintendent) Dr. (Gary) Niehaus has had an open door (policy,)” Rennell said. “We can’t continue to pay for buildings that are only half-occupied. Buildings don’t teach students. Teachers do. We can’t afford to keep all these buildings open and still remain competitive to be able to hire the best and the brightest teachers. … I’m asking you and I’m urging you to support our school district and make those tough decisions, because I know you guys have the best interest of our school district in mind.”

Grosse Pointe Park resident Art Papapanos had a different point of view.

“In my opinion, you have staged a biased and theatrical process over the last six months,” Papapanos said. “You don’t have the guts to stand up against a preapproved plan designed by your superintendent. You should be ashamed for not listening to the voice of the community as well as the comments of Dr. Arbulu. You should resign or be recalled immediately. If neither of the two happens, I assure you that at your next elections you’ll be shown your way out.”

Lee Johnson, of Grosse Pointe Park, said the reconfiguration plan’s four proposals will save the district as little as $500,000 per year and not more than $750,000.

“So you don’t have the $1 million in annual operating savings that you directed the administration to present to you,” said Johnson, who has two children in the district. “There are other scenarios that have been considered that could save potentially as much as $3 million. … Because of the irreversible nature of the decisions that you may be making tonight, we cannot afford to have a false start. If this does not save enough money, you’ll be back in two years with a need for additional cost savings.”

Grosse Pointe Park resident Jeff Balfour, a member of the Blue Ribbon Committee and father of two, said he was critical of the school board before he became a member of the committee.

“But what I saw at these meetings was honesty and integrity,” he said. “As I sat on the Blue Ribbon Committee, I didn’t see any deceit or conspiracy or secret plans. What I haven’t seen is a real alternative based on the reality of money, facts and figures of math. Until I see any viable alternative, I support this administration and I support this board. I know in my heart it’s a hard decision, but I want to applaud you for your leadership, and at the end of the day, doing your best and taking the best interest of the community at heart.”