District to close Knox Elementary

BELOIT — The West Branch school board will soon be deciding on a district restructuring plan that will close Knox Elementary.

The board Thursday night authorized schools Superintendent Timothy Saxton to develop a detailed plan that will close Knox Elementary and place grades pre-school through second at Damascus Elementary (472 students), third through eight at the middle school (874) and nine through 12 at the high school (499, 59 at the career center) for the 2020-2021 school year. The board will make a decision on the final plan at a special meeting tentatively scheduled for March 9.

The proposed plan shows a projected cost in operations and staff reductions through retirements and resignations, according to Saxton. The plan keeps the student-teacher ratio similar to what it is now and allows for similar grade clusters, efficient feeding of students, space for the current district curriculum and room to expand programs such as the STEM Project Lead the Way, he added.

Saxton said the next step is to develop the plan into a formal proposal that includes staffing, transportation and logistic planning that is still concerning people.

In the past month, Saxton has presented multiple plans to restructure the district to save money as the request of the school board. Other proposals included a variety of grade levels at various buildings and the closure of both Knox and Damascus Elementary schools. Savings ranged from approximately $500,000 to $1 million in operational costs and $300,000 to $500,000 in personnel.

Saxton said the administrative team of principals, directors and supervisors developed the current plan based on internal committee meetings, the public forum held earlier this month and numerous conversations with each other. He said the administrative team worked to balance the current curriculum with possible expansion of curriculum while remaining efficient in operations.

According to Saxton’s past presentations, student enrollment has dropped nearly 500 students since 2009-2010 and sits at 1,980. Currently the district has 551 students at the high school in grades nine through 12 (82 attend the career center), 688 students at the middle school in grades five through eight and pre-school, 334 at Damascus Elementary in grades kindergarten through four and 325 at Knox Elementary in grades kindergarten through four.

Current operational costs, according to 2019 data from the Ohio Department of Education, are approximately $1.5 million for the high school, $1.1 million for the middle school, $490,000 for Damascus Elementary and $486,000 for Knox Elementary. The total operational cost per square foot for the all the buildings is $9.27 versus the state average of $7.

The board asked Saxton to present options to restructure the district to help battle a projected  deficit spending of $700,000 to $800,000 the next five years. After multiple failed levies in the past few years by a growing margin, the board indicated a future levy is no longer an option. Saxton said the administrative team targeted the $900,000 savings to avoid needing a levy.

In response to a question from a teacher in attendance regarding the number of students at the middle school, board member Mikki Kanagy reminded everyone the current middle school was built as an elementary and middle school. Board member Aaron Hawk also noted the proposed number of students is similar to other districts.

With the final proposal expected March 9, Saxton’s revised timeline for the change has the planning starting March 10, communicating the plan to staff and forming sub-committees to enable the change by April 1 and completing the plan by July 31.