Lake Ridge to cut teachers, close elementary school

Lake Ridge New Tech Schools Superintendent Sharon Johnson-Shirley announces plans for more than 20 eliminated positions in the Lake Ridge district in a public meeting Monday night. 

GARY — After a referendum failed in November, Lake Ridge Schools will now have to shutter one of its two elementary school and eliminate 20 positions. 

Lake Ridge New Tech Schools Superintendent Sharon Johnson-Shirley announced the elimination of more than 20 positions throughout the district at a Monday night public meeting.

The district will also close Hosford Park New Tech Elementary School — one of the district’s two current elementary schools.

Changes will go into effect before the start of the next school year and eliminated personnel will be notified between May 2 and June 20 as required by state law, Johnson-Shirley said.

Changes to come for 2019-20 school year

The cuts, announced nearly five months after the district's failed November referendum effort, were announced to a full room of mostly Lake Ridge employees. More than 100 Lake Ridge teachers, staff and parents stood and applauded Hosford Park principal Eric Worthington as he described the challenges felt in the district as a result of a state funding model that has grown increasingly reliant on referendum support.

"This is like a death," Worthington said with a crack in his voice. "This is the place I care about. This is the building I come to everyday. I know every light switch, every plug, every room in that building."

The positions cut will not all necessarily come from Hosford Park staff, Lake Ridge Business Manager Laura Hubinger said. The district will cut seven elementary teaching positions, six secondary teaching positions and four administrative positions, in addition to at least six support staff positions including three library aides, a clerical position and a certified nursing assistant position, for a total savings of more than $1.3 million in salary costs.

Lake Ridge employs 115 teachers this school year, Hubinger said. 

The district will also look to save more than $240,000 with reductions to adult education programs, custodial services, student resource officer spending and middle school supervision.

Hosford Park students in grades kindergarten through fourth grade will be transferred to Longfellow New Tech Elementary School beginning next school year, and all fifth graders will be moved into Lake Ridge New Tech Middle School.

Hubinger said Hosford Park was selected to close over Longfellow due to the classroom size available in Longfellow, as well as the district's ability to expand at the school if needed in the future. Class sizes at Longfellow currently sit around 22.5 to 1, while the school can meet between 27 and 30 to 1 at capacity, Johnson-Shirley said.

The district has not yet made a decision about the future of the Hosford Park building after it's closure, but Hubinger said Lake Ridge is weighing options to repurpose the building.

"We don’t do it lightly," Worthington said. "We don’t do it because we don’t care about this kids. We’re doing what we’re doing to try to make this district last, to try to make sure your kids get educated.”

Referendum support: waiting until absolutely necessary

Lake Ridge Schools stands to lose about $3 million in the 2020 tax cap deadline and is not eligible for a state takeover by the state's Distress Unit Appeal Board, Hubinger said.

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Declining enrollment has also struck the district hard in a state funding model where dollars are designed to follow the student. The district has 1,772 students enrolled this school year, down 100 students from last school year, Hubinger said.

Lake Ridge administrators said the district did all it could to prepare to sustain the coming financial losses before turning to referendum support.

"We've done everything the state asked," Johnson-Shirley said, citing to this point a balance budget, clean schools and improved test scores.

However, Lake Ridge's referendum failed Nov. 6 with an 8% margin, leaving administration no other choice but to cut spending.

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Hubinger said the district is projected to lose 14% of state funding in change's to Indiana's complexity index, which provides funding for districts based on students . The district can't try for another referendum vote until November 2020.

Shortly after the failed referendum, the district put in notice to discontinue its transportation services, which by state-statute requires three-year's notice. Hubinger said the district will make a final decision on transportation cuts in 2021.

School board president Glenn Johnson shared his attempts prior to Monday night's meeting to lobby legislators for support. His visits to Indianapolis have come in the midst of the Indiana General Assembly's biennial budget session in which state legislators' proposals to increase public education funding have not met the expected rise inflation.

"You need to go to the voters booth, Johnson said, implored those in the audience. "Voter turnout has been dismal in Lake County at best. We have to vote. Your vote is your voice. It's easy to complain after the election, but you have to complain with your vote at the election." 

Lake Ridge community reacts

News of cuts across the district fell on a supportive crowd as community members offered up suggestions for how to better rally support for future district needs.

"Next time around, let your voices be heard for the children of Lake Ridge, for this community because when the schools go, guess what? There goes the community," Johnson-Shirley said to the audience.

Maggie Botts, a Lake Ridge employee of 33 years, is a librarian at Hosford Park. Despite concerns her position will be cut this summer, she said she's happy with the district. She said the schools are well-kept and more beautiful than when she first began with Lake Ridge.

It was this support that led her to speak up at the end of the Monday night meeting. Her brief comments, shouted from the back of the room, were met with applause.

"I'm standing with you, Dr. Johnson-Shirley," she said. 

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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.