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Friday, March 1, 2024
The Observer

South Bend school board votes to close Clay High School

On Monday night, by a vote of 4-3, the board of the South Bend Community Schools Corporation (SBCSC) voted to “right-size” the school district and close Clay High School, citing the concerning number of open seats — 2,400 and projected to grow — in district-wide high school enrollment.

The board meeting largely began by the book, as Kemilyn Schreiber, the principal of Clay High School, stepped to the podium at the start of Monday evening's gathering. Schreiber announced the upcoming school musical — “Zombie Prom” — and heralded two students and their accomplishments.

The first indication of the night’s significance and tenor came as one of the students, Addison Nally, walked up LaSalle Intermediate Academy’s (LIA) cavernous auditorium with a neon paper sign lettered with “Save Clay.” As the board and superintendent huddled behind the dais to take a picture with the students, Nally held the sign at the front of the room.

After announcements had concluded, community members came to the podium to offer public comment — three minutes for each speaker — on the proposed right-sizing of the district, with hours of overwhelmingly pro-Clay comments. Students and families mentioned concerns over going to rival schools and losing the bonds they have with their peers, teammates and teachers. They alleged that the passage of a referendum for more funding to the district meant that their school would be protected, and not become the fourth school closed by the SBCSC since World War II.

A South Bend community members denounces the board of the South Bend Community School Corporation.
A South Bend community member denounces the board of the South Bend Community School Corporation at Monday night’s meeting.

One woman, followed in two rounds of comment by both her mother and son, walked up with introductory music blaring on her smartphone, first Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise,” and then Taylor Swift’s “Anti-Hero.” 

“I have a 3.7-grade point average student at Clay High School. I won’t send her to the Empowerment Zone if you pay me to,” she said, referring to schools on the west side of the city set aside by the state in 2019 for targeted reform.

Audrey Schlueter, a senior at Saint Mary’s College and student teacher at John Adams High School, offered her comment in defense of Clay. 

“Last fall, I had my first observation placement at Clay High School for around three months. And in those three months, Clay High School solidified my decision to become a teacher,” she said. 

“From everything that I know, going into teaching, students need stability… So I think closing Clay would be an incredible disadvantage for the entire South Bend community,” she said at the close of her comments.

For all the public comments, only one speaker arose in support of the proposal to close Clay, dubbing the other commenters members of a “vocal and boisterous” minority.

Notre Dame English professor emeritus and SBCSC board trustee Stuart Greene said the facilities master plan, which recommended closing both Clay High School and Warren Elementary School, was a roadmap for the future that lacked implementation steps to address SBCSC’s root problems. Greene represents District 5, which encompasses Clay Township and Clay High School.

“Among the many assumptions made about the plan is the belief that changing boundaries and consolidation among other potential decisions will ensure that children will flourish,” Greene said.

Greene wondered what differences right sizing would have on student learning and quality instruction. He added that SBCSC should implement a more thorough approach to monitoring changes within the district so that a new board or administration would have sufficient guidance to make decisions in the future.

The three board members who ultimately voted against the successful measure tried a number of last-ditch efforts to avoid passing the plan. Board member Jeanette McCullough unsuccessfully sought to table the motion.

Then, in a 42-minute speech, trustee Mark Costello called for an alternative he said he has been working on, which is dubbed “the people’s plan” or “Plan P.”

“I received information that the facility consultants would present for a recommendation to the board at the March 20 meeting, a recommendation to close Clay High School. I was shocked and confused because the superintendent did not say a word to the board publicly or privately to me that he was in favor of this decision to come,” Costello alleged.

Stephanie Ball, board vice president, defended the outside consultants SBCSC hired to draft the facilities master plan and the board prior to casting her vote in favor of the resolution about the plan.

“It was a practical business perspective that leads me to have confidence in the findings of our third-party outside contractors,” Ball said. “The seven-member board itself has attempted to work and understand, holding many sessions and learning the concerns of our constituents.”

Sitting in the LIA’s auditorium — what used to be LaSalle High School's auditorium — Ball, a LaSalle High School graduate, spoke about the inevitability of change while sporting an old LaSalle High School sweatshirt.

“We all sustain different types of changes throughout our lifetime,” Ball said. “Clearly, I’m sitting here demonstrating that LaSalle High School is no longer a high school. So change does happen. Change does not stop.”

Ball acknowledged the ties teachers, students, professionals, paraprofessionals, bus drivers, superintendents and board members might have to the specific buildings where they have conducted their live's work.

“It’s not buildings that hold a school system together. It’s people with purpose in the buildings,” Ball said. “The heart of the matter is academics. As long as you’re providing quality education, I don’t care about the building.”

As the vote was finally taken, accusations were hurled throughout the room as Clay community members heckled the board. When the board moved to adjourn, the crowd had already left.

Costello tearfully greeted families in the foyer, emotionally pleading “I tried.” A number of others also cried as they thanked the board member.

In his presentation of the resolution some hours earlier, superintendent Todd Cummings shared a message of optimism.

“I’m optimistic about South Bend schools, and I realize having conversations about closing schools is difficult for our students, staff and community,” he said. “Tomorrow, we’ll move forward planning continued investment in pre-K programs, in our teachers and leaders, expanding career opportunities for our students and providing equitable resources to achieve gains in literacy and increase graduation rates.”