Parents fight to keep TCAPS elementary schools open

Jan 13, 2016

Since the announcement that three Traverse City Area Public Schools elementary schools might close, people are getting together to try to save them. They’re brainstorming ways to save money, make money or increase enrollment. 

The Old Mission Community Connection Group met last weekend at Peninsula Community Library. They’re hoping good ideas will save Old Mission Peninsula School, Interlochen Community School and the International School at Bertha Vos.


More than 40 people - parents, community members and TCAPS board members - gathered at the library. Allison O’Keefe, head of Old Mission Peninsula School’s PTO, ran the meeting. She says it’s not just about saving Old Mission anymore.

"We don’t want any schools to be closed," says O'Keefe. "We actually believe in the small schools and small communities and the value that those communities have on education."


Allison O'Keefe updates over 40 people about possible school closings at a meeting at Old Mission Peninsula School.
Credit Morgan Springer

The group wants this to be a TCAPS-wide discussion. Because, as they say, school closings will also affect the whole district. If the schools closed, area schools would have to absorb students. And while Old Mission, Interlochen and Bertha Vos may be on the chopping block now, who might be next?

Making their own suggestions to the TCAPS board

TCAPS Superintendent Paul Soma says something has to happen in the next 12 months or else the state might step in and take over management.

"We don't want any schools to be closed. We actually believe in the small schools and small communities and the value that those communities have on education." - Allison O'Keefe

This group hopes to present the TCAPS board with a short-term plan to buy themselves time and keeps the schools open, and they’re thinking long-term too. O’Keefe and others have been going to a lot of board meetings lately.

"This week there was another finance meeting," says O'Keefe. "So we sat in on the meeting, and it was very disturbing."

Disturbing because O’Keefe says it seems like Soma has already decided that closing schools is the best option.

O’Keefe says Soma has been relatively dismissive about the potential costs of closing schools - costs like parents taking their kids out of TCAPS or not passing future bonds. She says he also won’t talk about the possibility of future growth in the student population.

"These are all things that when we bring up are kind of sloughed over," says O'Keefe," and [Soma] keeps coming back ... to 'sky is falling, sky is falling. We don’t have time to talk about things that could happen in the future, we have to talk about today.' Watch the finance meeting. I mean, I’m not using his words verbatim, but this is the message that he is sending."

Brainstorming how to save schools

O’Keefe broke people up into groups to brainstorm ideas for keeping schools open. Discussions varied. Some groups wonder if the number of school-aged kids will actually keep declining. 

Isaiah Wunsch is a cherry and apple farmer. He used to work in finance for the state.

"The kids who are in kindergarten right now on a national basis are the smallest kindergarten class that we have seen in the last thirty or forty years," says Wunsch, "and are likely to be the smallest kindergarten class that we’ll see."


Isaiah Wunsch draws a population curve to show his group why he thinks the student population will increase soon.
Credit Morgan Springer

Wunsch thinks the shortage of kids is temporary. So he says the administration’s plan to close buildings they might need later and keep the same number of teachers doesn’t make sense.

"I mean if I have a short cherry crop, I’m not going to sell an orchard but keep the same number of people on my payroll," he says.

Wunsch says it’s smarter to do a short-term freeze on hiring and capital improvements - like building renovations.

But Soma says TCAPS has to respond to what the reality is now - a decline in students - and not what might happen with the population in the future.

Other groups played with the idea of grouping grades differently or bringing sixth grade or even sixth through eighth grade back to the elementary schools. This would help bring their enrollment up.

Kelly Clark, one of two TCAPS board members at the meeting, says he likes the idea of grouping grades, but it could never happen this year. And they need a solution that will save money now.

Losing students

"All six of my kids will be in homeschool or private school." - Jocelyn Sweetapple-Clarke.

Soma has said the district would save as much as $400,00 per school. But people at the meeting still question if closings would actually save TCAPS money. One person suggests possibly a third of Old Mission’s students would leave TCAPS for private school or homeschool if the school closed. And since schools in Michigan get more than $7,000 for each student they have, that’s money TCAPS would lose.

"All six of my kids will be in homeschool or private school,”  says Jocelyn Sweetapple-Clarke.

O’Keefe brings the group back together at the end of the meeting, asking people to recap their ideas.

People talked about summer programming like a migrant school, magnet schools, day care or Head Start and special programs like International Baccalaureate, the Talented and Gifted Program, or STEM. They also brainstormed setting up an endowment for TCAPS. One woman joked that she's been pushing people in the area to adopt children.

The next meeting is scheduled for 9 a.m. this Saturday at the Peninsula Community Library. The group hopes to see people throughout the district there.