Tables blocking exit at Griffith High School

Folding tables block an exit at Griffith High School on May 28 as a part of school administrators' an attempt to direct students to one exit during a planned walkout. Parents and students who saw the photo shared on social media were concerned the barricades created a safety hazard.

GRIFFITH — In its first meeting since cutting up to 14 staff positions, the Griffith Public School board met for two-and-a-half hours this week, taking questions from a full audience of teachers, parents and students raising concerns about the future of their district.

The regularly scheduled Thursday meeting drew a large crowd thanks in part to a photo, shared a couple hundred times last month on social media, of tables used to barricade school exits during a planned student rally in support of riffed teachers.

Griffith Superintendent Michele Riise told The Times last month tables were placed in front of doors as a proactive measure to direct student flow to a single exit during the expected student walkout. But, at the Thursday night meeting, Riise said she was told only one set of doors at Griffith High School was blocked. 

"I have a problem with any doors being barricaded with tables," Griffith parent Stacy Vasilak said Thursday night. "It's unsafe. I want to know what's going to be done in the future to protect my kids."

The May 28 incident was investigated by the Griffith Fire Department and prompted both local fire officials and the state Department of Education to warn Griffith administrators not to block exits again.

Sutton said that the incident exposed weaknesses in the school corporation’s safety plan and that Griffith administrators will be working with the input of law enforcement to update the district’s policies for facilitating student expression.

“It was a day I wish never happened,” School Board President Gary Sutton said. "It will never happen again."

Enrollment drop

Riise confirmed last month cuts were made at the end of the school year to four classified staff positions and between seven and 10 teaching positions.

Meghan Damron, Griffith’s director of business services, gave a presentation Thursday night on district funding, showing that Griffith Public Schools could stand to lose around $800,000 as a result of property tax caps taking affect in 2020 if the Town of Griffith remains in Calumet Township. A better idea of Griffith’s fate recent proposals to join North and St. John townships could come this summer.

Enrollment has declined by 76 students between the fall and spring semesters in the 2018-19 school year, according to data provided by the district. Under the Indiana's school funding formula, Griffith receives more than $6,000 in state funding per student. If Griffith doesn't see an increase in enrollment this fall, the district could stand to lose more than $450,000.

The district has looked to reduce spending across the board, Damron said, however, with certified salaries and benefits making up about half of the Griffith Public Schools’ spending, staff reductions were needed.

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Following the presentation, a Griffith teacher in the audience pressed the board for answers on what the district has done to reduce costs before turning to staff reductions.

Among the efforts, Sutton explained, was the elimination of a central office secretary, reduction of paper usage throughout the district, a hiring freeze on maintenance and custodial staff and the exploration of implementing solar power to save in energy costs. The district also decided not to hire an assistant superintendent after Riise, who previously held the role, moved into the superintendent position last year, Sutton said.

“We have to make some changes,” Damron said. “But, we want to keep our focus on the students and what we can provide for them.”

Several Griffith High School students spoke Thursday night to express concern about effects felt in the classroom. Next year, the district will offer yearbook and newspaper as an after-school program rather than an in-school course after too few students registered for the class next year.

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The high school's newspaper's two incoming co-editors-in-chief made an emotional appeal to the board.

“It means a lot to students — it’s not just a class,” Curtis Carter said, explaining the difference the class has made in his ability to communicate with others and apply for jobs. “Yearbook and newspaper are classes students want to take.”

Seeking solutions

Griffith Public Schools has not yet followed the growing trend of Indiana schools seeking their community's support through referendum funding. District administrators have considered it, the board confirmed Thursday, but expressed concerns about attracting enough support to back such a referendum in a state where, according to IDOE data, about one in five school referendums have failed in the last five years.

The board also expressed mixed feelings on opening enrollment in Griffith, which could help grow funding based on the district's total student count. Sutton called open enrollment a slippery slope with little internal control over which students Griffith could accept should they adopt such a policy.

“It could be detrimental to someone else’s district — it could decimate Lake Ridge,” Griffith Board Member Kathy Ruesken added, pointing to the nearby district which voted to close its Hosford Park New Tech Elementary School following Lake Ridge Schools’ own recent declines in enrollment and failed November referendum.

Ultimately, the board turned the conversation toward changes in state law that have increasingly directed funding to charter and virtual schools out of sources that once only catered to public schools.

"These challenges are a result of the state of Indiana,” Sutton said. "Griffith is a good school system and will continue to be a good school system."

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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.