Griffith High School

Griffith Public Schools began staff reductions last week, eliminating between 11 and 14 positions districtwide by the end of the day Friday. Griffith Superintendent Michele Riise attributes reductions to changes in state funding and reduced tax support to come in 2020.

GRIFFITH — Between seven and 10 teacher positions in Griffith Public Schools were eliminated this week in a move the district's superintendent attributes to declining enrollment and an expected $800,000 deficit next school year.

Four classified staff positions were also cut late last week.

News of the staff reductions spread early this week, around the same time remaining teachers in the district learned of their class schedules for the 2019-2020 school year.

Affected teachers were informed of the staff reductions in person last week, Superintendent Michele Riise said. All teachers were notified in person by the end of the day Friday. Cuts affect all levels in the Griffith district, K-12, she said.

As word of the reductions spread on social media, so did rumors about changes in the district, Riise said.

Some expressed fears that classes such as yearbook, AP chemistry or robotics would be cut. Riise said in an email sent to staff and later to parents Tuesday evening that extracurricular programs are not being cut. She said courses in the art and foreign language departments may be consolidated based on shrinking class sizes due to declining enrollment.

"You have to have a certain number to run a class," Riise said. "Fiscally, we can't have nine in a class for it to be run, because that's not using our dollars wisely and our staff wisely."

Riise said the district lost 76 students between September 2018 and February 2019. In a state funding model where dollars follow students, Griffith's student enrollment losses last year cost the district $532,000. Between its high school, middle school and three elementaries, the district enrolled 2,336 students in February, according to the superintendent's community email.

Griffith Public Schools also expects to lose $800,000 in public funding when property tax caps take full effect in Lake County in 2020, Riise said in her email.

The Griffith School Board closed enrollment to students from outside the district in 2018, shortly before Riise began as superintendent, she said. The superintendent said the board has no intentions to consider reopening enrollment as the community was generally supportive of the decision to close enrollment in the schools.

Reductions in the Griffith district came following news Tuesday night that Hammond will close three schools and eliminate between 130 and 150 positions districtwide as this school year draws to a close. Lake Ridge Schools made a similar announcement last month, sharing plans to close its Hosford Park New Tech Elementary School and eliminate more than 20 positions after the district's failed November referendum.

Some affected employees in the Griffith Public Schools were offered positions elsewhere in the district, Riise said. In total, the school system is Griffith's largest employer with 312 total staff, the superintendent said.

"We wanted to help notify in a timely fashion," Riise said, noting that the reductions come when other local districts are hiring for next school year. "We needed to personally let them know prior to the end of the school year."

It's a decision Riise said the district doesn't take lightly.

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"It's a hard decision for all," the superintendent said. "Many of us have had many sleepless nights leading up to this."

Griffith community reacts as news of reductions spreads

Frustrated students took aim this week at the district's decision to eliminate staff, suggesting that cuts were caused by overspending and that administrative professionals received raises while teachers did not. Multiple Griffith teachers expected to stay with the district next school year expressed concern their class sizes would grow too large following course consolidations.

Staff reductions this spring come following a heated bargaining conversation in December in which Griffith teachers requested salary increases. Their baseline salary falls lower than most in the Region, the Times reported last year, though contract mediation ended later that month with a one-time, 3% stipend.

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Riise said she wanted to make clear to the community that cuts have come following months of discussion with the Griffith School Board and teachers union in executive session meetings dating back to January. She said the district has taken measures to avoid direct cuts to personnel, employing the use of cost-saving LED lighting, reducing paper supplies and seeking grant funding.

The superintendent stepped into her current role in March 2018, taking the place of former superintendent Pete Morikis, now emergency manager for the Gary Community School Corporation. Her contracted annual salary of $135,000 compares lower than most area superintendents, a Times analysis found, and is lower than Morikis' salary of $156,000 when he retired from Griffith Public Schools.

Riise pointed to reductions in recent years in her own central office staff. The district cut an assistant superintendent position when Riise moved from that position to fill the superintendent role. She said around the same time the district also eliminated a central office secretary.

Griffith teachers and administrators rallied together a month ago to draw attention to inequalities in the state's funding of public schools just as the Indiana General Assembly's budget biennium came to a close.

"They're just not keeping up with the cost of education," Griffith teachers union president Tracy Whitman said during the April rallies. "It's not just teacher pay, but in general. We have to worry about how are we spending money on our children and their services."

The Griffith School Board will meet in executive session 10 a.m. Saturday morning to discuss personnel. Riise said in her community email the the district has "no intentions to further reduce staff."

Addressing criticism the eliminated positions came as a surprise, Riise said the district had multiple community meetings in the months leading up to reductions made last week. The Griffith School Board's next public meeting is 6 p.m. June 20 in the Griffith High School Large Group Instruction Classroom.

Students have planned a walkout at Griffith's middle and high school for next week. Some of those same students wore black to school Tuesday in support of their teachers. Ben Jacobs, a 2018 graduate of Griffith High School, said he plans to circulate a petition in response to the reductions and class consolidations.

"These are some great teachers we're losing," Jacobs said. "These teachers are a foundation in our community. They're helping out more than they're being paid for."

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Education Reporter

Carley Lanich covers education in Lake County and throughout the Region. She comes to Northwest Indiana from Indianapolis and is an IU-Bloomington grad.