Superintendent says Irving closure a possibility

·4 min read

Oct. 22—People raised concerns about the future of Irving Elementary School at Muskogee Public Schools' Long Range Planning Committee meeting on Thursday night.

John Cruz, director of the Latin Community of Muskogee, said he wanted to see a comparison of what bond issue-related repairs were budgeted for Irving and and the actual amount spent so far. Concerns were brought up at a Muskogee School Board meeting on Tuesday.

Irving serves a heavily Hispanic neighborhood. Promotional material for the $110 million bond issue passed in 2019, said Irving would receive $1 million in renovations, as would Whittier, Creek, Pershing and New Tech at Cherokee elementary schools.

However, Muskogee School Superintendent Jarod Mendenhall said that heavy enrollment decline, structural emergencies, rising construction prices and COVID-19 have affected how Muskogee Public Schools chooses bond issue priorities.

"What I will tell you is that some of that is going to fluctuate," Mendenhall told Cruz. "In your mind, you're thinking, okay 'We're supposed to get $1 million in renovation at Irving, right?' If we keep Irving, you're going to get that."

Mendenhall had spent much of the meeting detailing how recent situations affected how MPS prioritized bond issue projects. A collapsed sewer line at Whittier prompted the district demolish part of the school, then convert the building into a school for students learning online.

Muskogee Public Schools also lost 900 students from October 2018 to October 2021, he said.

Enrollment declines prompted the district to change school configuration earlier this year. Part of that included closing the Grant Foreman building, which had housed a sixth-grade academy, for about a year for possible renovations. Sixth-graders were moved in with seventh-graders at the former Ben Franklin Science Academy.

Mendenhall showed a slide from February, when the long range planning committee surveyed community response to the question: "The district is looking at potentially moving Irving Elementary to the Grant Foreman site because the site is in better condition, a better physical space for students and provides more opportunities for growth. Do you believe this is a better site to serve more students."

Out of 444 responses, 38.7 percent said no and 61.3 percent said yes, according to the survey results.

Cruz said the question was misleading.

"If you send me that question today, John Cruz is going to say 'yes.' Why? Because if you read the question, you're telling someone you're putting them at a better school," he said. "Maybe we need another survey but the question be more clear: Are you comfortable moving to another location if we shut down?"

Mendenhall said he agreed "that's more of a fair question in the current situation."

Cruz said he wanted to know how the district got into its current situation and what it plans to do next.

Mendenhall said the district has so many needs.

"In the last month, we had to close the Muskogee High School campus twice because of a leak in a water pipe installed in 1968," he said. "Part of this exercise is to tell you how much things actually do cost."

About $2.8 million total in bond issue funds were spent on repairs at Pershing, Creek and Cherokee.

The superintendent warned against taking only "quantitative data" and making decisions.

"You need to go into how does that community feel about this," he said. "How are parents and kids going to feel about this. All of that needs to be vetted, discussed, talked about. I'm not telling you that we're shutting down a building. What I am telling you is this, the data kind of tells me, I probably ought to go in that direction."

He asked, "is it good business to keep buildings open when you can shut some of them down and save on funding?"

"If I were just crunching numbers by myself in a room, that's a great decision, but I didn't talk to any people. That's a bad decision," he said.

Thursday's meeting was the first of several long range planning committee meetings leading up to possible recommendations to the Muskogee school board in March. Mendenhall said Thursday's meeting would primarily be for information and data collection.

Future meetings are planned in December and January with a community forum in February.

The meeting was held at the newly rebuilt Alice Robertson 8th and 9th Grade Academy and included a tour of the school.

Several Irving parents came to Thursday's meeting but left early.

After the meeting, Cruz said he plans to do a town hall meeting for the Latin community, translate some of the information presented, "and hear all their concerns."

Former Irving Principal Dennis Wilhite said he still worries "that they're going to close the building."

"Nothing they have shown me tonight has shows that they are going to keep the building open," he said.

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