Residents have say on WB restructuring

BELOIT — The West Branch school board Tuesday night collected community input to help with a decision for possible district restructuring that could close both elementary schools.

The board hosted the forum to hear from community members regarding the restructuring options presented by schools Superintendent Timothy Saxton Jan. 28. Saxton had originally planned to make a recommendation at the meeting for the board to act upon at their meeting next week, but said further discussion with administrative and internal committees resulted in additional options and an adjusted timeline for the process.

Saxton presented two new options, but said the committees have discussed at least four other options in the past seven to 10 days, including keeping Knox open.

The first of the new options includes closing Knox and placing grades pre-school through first at Damascus (340 students), second through seventh at the middle school (830) and grades eight through 12 (787) as well the administrative, special services and technology department offices at the high school for an operating costs savings of $485,933.

The second includes closing Knox and placing grades pre-school through first at Damascus (340 students), grades two through six at the middle school (830) and grades seven through 12 at the high school (940). This option does not yet provide a place for the administrative, special services and technology department offices.

Saxton had previously presented the board with three options.

The first option would close Knox Elementary and change Damascus Elementary into an early learning center for grades pre-school, kindergarten and first. The building would also house the administrative offices for the superintendent, treasurer and school board; special services offices; and the technology department. Projected cost savings are $485,933.40 for maintenance and operations and $300,000 in personnel.

The second option would close both Knox and Damascus elementaries. The middle school would become an elementary and intermediate school for grades pre-school through sixth and the high school would become a junior-senior high school for grades seven through 12. Projected cost savings are $976,121 for maintenance and operations and $500,000 for personnel.

The third option would close Knox Elementary and part of Damascus Elementary. Damascus Elementary would become the administrative building with offices for the school board, superintendent and treasurer, as well as for special services and the technology department. The middle school would become an elementary and intermediate school for grades pre-school through six and the high school would become a junior-senior high school for grades seven through 12. Projected cost savings is $885,121 for maintenance and operations and $500,000 for personnel.

Saxton said he is no longer projecting a cost savings for personnel since there is no way to accurately know how the personnel will be affected.

“We know the projected enrollment, but we also don’t know what we don’t know,” Saxton said in reference to the specific cost analysis of an eventual decision until the board has made one. That includes how personnel and staff will be used.

The new timeline for the process calls for the board to discuss and consider the options and then make a decision at a special board meeting Feb. 28 if needed. Planning will begin March 1 and then the plan will be communicated to staff to form subcommittees in April to prepare for the change. The plan should be complete and ready to take effect by the end of July.

Saxton said he made the proposal for restructuring at the request of the school board, which indicated attempting another levy to battle $800,000 in deficit spending is no longer realistic considering the community has consistently rejected ballot attempts the past several years.

Saxton said his proposal took into consideration a declining student enrollment and the current operational costs of each building.

For student enrollment, the district 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 for the all the buildings is $9.27 versus the state average of $7.

With any of the options, the district will be able to battle the deficit spending the next five years, with the savings building up the general fund, Saxton noted.

At the meeting last month, board member Karen Rice noted the buildings are not being operated at capacity and students are already being transferred between buildings based on programs and curriculum.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Saxton denied several rumors being spread, stating open enrollment will not be cut, busing will not be reduced to a single tier, the STEM program Project Lead the Way is not being stopped, the Latch Key program will remain in place, the board is not threatening to close schools to pass a levy and the board is not waiting until next year to make a decision. He also said the student-teacher ratio will remain nearly the same as it is now, with 23 to 26 students per teacher.

“We’re trying to stay under 25 (students per teacher),” he said. “We’re looking for the option that allows for the most operational cost savings while minimally impacting educational operations and delivery.”

During the public speaking portion of the meeting, several people spoke, questioning the cost associated with restructuring, what will be done with the closed buildings and how students and staff will be affected.

Saxton said the community has been included in the discussion early, so there are some questions for which he does not have answers, but explained the costs of restructuring will be in manpower and overtime for current employees, the amount of students in each building will not exceed regulations and there has been no discussion about what will be done with a building if it is closed. He did mention, however, if a building is closed the board will have to make a decision in the next two years whether to let it sit, rent it, sell it or use it for some other function. Resident will still be paying for the buildings through 2023.

Community members also questioned why every option including closing Knox Elementary. Saxton responded Damascus is a more centralized location and Knox is in Columbiana County. If all the buildings are in Mahoning County, the Goshen Police District, which provides a school resource officer and police protection, will be able to cover all the district’s buildings.

In regards to having younger grades in the same building with older grades, Saxton said the buildings will be separated into wings and common areas such as the cafeteria will be watched by staff members. He also responded to a concern of future student enrollment growth by saying a three-building option allows for that, but the trend the past several years suggests there will not be growth, with families leaving the area and those remaining having fewer children.

In response to how the district is currently cutting operational costs, Saxton said the board is in a shared service agreement for HVAC systems, a roofing agreement with a local company for a reduced rate and has received a transportation analysis from the Ohio School Boards Association to help guide bus replacement and maintenance now and in the future. He said the board is also working with a local grant writer to apply for possible funding for specific items to lessen the burden on the general fund.

Saxton also noted the board is addressing the sudden resignation of treasurer David Drawl, who developed the five-year forecast for the district, by securing by week’s end an interim treasurer in the area through shared services who will review all the finances to ensure the board is on track with the restructuring proposal.

Saxton ended by encouraging anyone with questions, concerns or comments to contact him at 330-938-9324.