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Portage parents plead for lower class sizes as district seeks bond to fund new schools

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A crowded Portage Public Schools meeting on Feb. 24, 2020.

As the Portage Public Schools works to get a multi-million dollar bond on the ballot, concerned community members say they fear the district is throwing money at the wrong problem.

Parents, educators and others brought concerns of over-crowded class sizes at Amberly Elementary School to the district’s Board of Education meeting on Feb. 24, 2020. The district is preparing to send a bond proposal out for public survey in mid-March with hopes of putting it up for a vote in August 2020.

The Bond

The potential bond focuses on rebuilding five of Portage’s elementary schools: Haverhill, Woodland, Angling Road Central and Amberly elementary schools while renovating Moorsbridge Elementary School.

None of the buildings have air conditioning, lack energy efficiency and don’t provide adequate electrical capabilities, among other issues, Portage Public Schools Superintendent Mark Bielang said.

Bielang said it’s too soon to say how much the bond would be for or what a timeline for construction would look like if the bond passes. According to a feasibility study completed in January 2020, the cost of the project could range between $108.3 million and $130.9 million, depending on how the district decides to proceed.

The plan could also expand elementary school capacity within the district by 150 students, Bielang said, helping to ease crowding at Portage’s most populated elementary schools.

Bielang said the board would need to finalize its plans by April and pass a resolution for the bond in May in order to get on the ballot in August.

Bielang referred to the bond effort as phase two of the district’s Facility Master Plan, phase one being the $144 million bond that voters passed in 2015. The money was put towards a series of school improvements, including two new middle schools, the remodeling of a third middle school, two new school swimming pools and two new stadiums.

Some of that construction was still underway in Feb. 2020. Bielang said it’s scheduled to be complete within a year, with students moving into the new Portage Central Middle School building for the 2020-2021 school year.

Crowding Concerns

During the public comment period at the Feb. 24 board meeting, a group of community members asked the district to make tackling over-crowded classes at Amberly Elementary School a priority.

Michael Sherrill, a parent and representative of a group called “Concerned Parents of Amberly,” gave a presentation to the board, explaining that test scores and student achievement were being negatively impacted by having too many students in the school’s kindergarten, first-grade and second-grade classes.

“We’re seeing it getting worse, and more and more parents are being concerned,” Sherrill said.

He said the bond proposal wouldn’t help overcrowding for years to come, failing to help the students struggling in crowded classrooms now.

“We feel like we need to work through the class issues before we can even look at the bond,” he said. “We don’t want to build permanent buildings when we don’t have the class-size issue resolved.”

He said the group has worked diligently through the district’s chain of command to bring its concerns to the board. He asked for open minds and listening ears.

“We are just really, really hungry for someone to take us seriously, listen to us, cooperate and collaborate,” he said.

His presentation was followed by a list of other public commenters. Among them was Amberly kindergarten teacher Jennifer Rainier, who said she feels the impacts of large class sizes first-hand.

She said class sizes at both Amerbly and Central elementary schools range from 25 to 27 students per class, with the other six elementary schools ranging from 18 to 24 students per class.

“This is the obvious discrepancy that needs attention,” she said.

Rainier said crammed classes make her job much harder, especially when coupled with tougher curriculum expectations and more state testing. She asked the board to consider the importance kindergarten plays in a child’s education.

“It is the kindergarten teacher’s job to lay those foundational blocks for the students for the 12-plus years to come. If that foundation is flawed, significant gaps will impact student growth,” she said.

Kristin and Rick Burmeister, Portage parents, also spoke, adding that teachers cannot provide equal attention to all students when classes are overcrowded.

“Students that need more help are not consistently receiving it. Students with the ability to excel are not being consistently challenged,” said Kristin. “This is not due to lack of teacher abilities. This is a numbers issue.”

Colleen Sherrill, a Portage student mother, echoed her concerns, saying that having smaller class sizes is more important than the rebuilding the schools.

“Do not ask me to pass that bond if you don't do something about if you don’t do something about these kids at Amberly,” she said. “Excellence has nothing to do with a beautiful modern school. It has to do with what's inside the school.”

District Response

Following public comments, board members said they were receptive to working with the community on a solution, though they didn’t have one readily available.

“The issues you raised are not only Amberly issues. They’re district issues,” Bielang said to the crowd. “We all have the same mission and vision in mind to accomplish.”

Board Trustee Randy Van Antwerp brought the bond proposal back to the forefront of the conversation, saying it would help address class size issues.

“It does offer the opportunity and flexibility to move children between buildings and balance class size enrollment in the school,” Van Antwerp said. “We hear you. Please continue to bring your concerns forward, and we’ll work on it. I can’t tell you anymore than that tonight. We don’t know what our finance look like going forward, and that’s the key for us going forward.”

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