New superintendent rides bumpy, bus-less start of Southgate school year

Photo by James Mitchell

Southgate Community Schools Superintendent Nancy Nagle delayed retirement to accept the administrative post for a district adjusting to severe budget cuts, including the loss of bus service.

Sunday Times Newspapers

SOUTHGATE – Nancy Nagle’s introduction as superintendent of Southgate Community Schools were not destined to be entirely pleasant. Rather than taking anticipated retirement after a dozen years with the district, Nagle instead accepted outgoing Supt. David Peden’s suggestion that she continue serving as the district’s top administrator following his June departure.

“Mr. Peden asked me to stay, he figured I knew the issues,” Nagle said.

The issues at hand ensured a turbulent beginning for Nagle. By the end of June the district approved a budget that was $5 million lower than the previous year. That was the deficit facing Southgate schools, which had to be eliminated by July 1 or risk takeover by state Emergency Financial Management officials.

“No one wanted that,” Nagle said of the no-sacred-cows approach to resolving a financial crisis. Meetings with employee unions were cooperative, with pay increases frozen to minimize staff loss.

The cuts were deep, and not popular. The most jarring was the loss of bus service for general education students, along with closing the Anderson High School swimming pool and privatizing custodial service.

Nagle said that the abrupt loss of transportation service for 5,200 students resulted in traffic congestion, frustrated parents and overworked staff.

Although some expressed their frustrations — including motorist parents freely using obscene words or hand gestures, a practice Nagle hopes to discourage around the students — many seem to understand the no-win situation school officials faced. Nagle said that administrators and educators are meeting with parent groups to explore more proactive community involvement, whether through car-pooling or organized walking/bicycling routes. The district recently accepted a Safe Road to School grant through Michigan State University, which will study the various routes taken to the district’s schools, study the safety of the sidewalks and conditions, and present an action plan by June 2012.

Aside from transportation, the district’s focus remains on education, a priority that guided budget decisions. “What impact will this have on a student’s learning?” Nagle asked, a mantra and motto considered when priority questions had to be asked. Bus service, privatized custodial service and the loss of a swimming pool took second place to retaining as many educators as possible to keep class sizes from inflating beyond a teacher’s ability to teach.

“You have to make choices,” Nagle said, citing the start of a school year that included teachers directing parking lot traffic.

The adjustment period continues, she said, and staff and students are demonstrating a knack for creative solutions. Professional development this year will focus on improving communications between grade levels, using class sets of text materials and bringing online resources to the forefront.

Administratively, the district will soon realize savings when district offices relocate from Reeck Road to the second floor of city hall, a move that invites additional cooperative efforts between the city and schools.

Call it an acceptance of reality. Southgate does not have the funding to continue as it was, and Nagle said the staff, students and parents need to realize that a new era has begun. Offering bus service may not be in the cards as the district reinvents itself.

“I’m not sure we’ll ever be in a position to bring it back,”Nagle said.

(James Mitchell can be reached at