Community considers Lawrence as a charter school

NEW MATAMORAS – Becoming a charter school would not sever Lawrence Elementary’s ties with the Frontier Local school district.

While charter schools, by law, are independent of any school district and have their own governing board, Frontier would be the sponsoring entity and likely provide a variety of services for the school.

“We’d certainly want them to be part of this community because I’ve got the seven to 12 side of that coin,” Frontier Superintendent Bruce Kidder said. “And they’re still Frontier kids.”

Making Lawrence a standalone “conversion” school was proposed at this month’s Frontier Local Board of Education meeting as an alternative to closing the school, something that’s been on the table for the last couple of years as the district looked to cut costs. Supporters see it as a win-win proposition because the small-but-strongly-supported school would remain open while not costing the district as much money.

The board plans to decide at its April 18 meeting whether to pursue the conversion option or close Lawrence and convert New Matamoras and Newport Elementary to grade-level-specific buildings, one kindergarten through third and one fourth through sixth. Another approach would close Lawrence and one of the other schools, leaving just one elementary and the high school.

The board has asked the community for input on the decision.

The charter school approach “would be fine” with Lawrence Township resident Susan Morrow, 42, who attended Lawrence Elementary and has a 3-month-old child she hopes will one day do the same.

“As long as they don’t shut it down,” Morrow said. “That school has memories for everybody.”

Whatever direction the board chooses, a levy is expected to appear on the November ballot to increase revenue for the district, which is on pace to spend about $600,000 more than it takes in this year. The millage rate would vary with the option selected, because some additional money would be needed if they go the charter route.

Whether Lawrence is closed or converted to a charter, the fixed costs of the building would be off the district’s ledgers, as well as some personnel costs. A previous estimate for outright closure projected a $350,000 savings, including teachers and other employees, but some factors have changed and Treasurer Frank Antill said Thursday he was still working on updated estimates.

As a conversion school, Lawrence would be funded based on a per-pupil amount deducted from Frontier’s share of state aid. How much that would be has yet to be determined, as Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s proposed school funding formula is being reviewed by the House of Representatives and is expected to undergo changes.

While Frontier would not receive the money attached to the students, the district stands to lose some of that anyway if it closes Lawrence and parents opt to send their children to another district via open enrollment. Plus, the conversion option allows the district to keep the neighborhood schools residents have indicated they support, rather than grade level determining which building students attend, Kidder said.

Some residents at last week’s board meeting indicated concern that the Ohio Department of Education could reject the effort to transform Lawrence, but John Charlton, associate director of communications for the department, said that isn’t the case.

“ODE does not approve new schools,” he said. “We do read every community school contract … to ensure that it is compliant with all the legal requirements for the contract.”

Charlton noted the contract is an agreement between the sponsor and developer, due to ODE the spring before the conversion school would open. In the case of a conversion school, both roles filled by the school district.

ODE offers other assistance with getting started and monitors the school financially and academically just as it does other public and charter schools.

Kidder said the district would still provide transportation for Lawrence students, just as it would for a private school located in the district.

Running payroll would only add a handful of additional employees on top of the district’s, and special education services would likely be shared. Frontier might provide administrative services for a while rather than the new school hiring a principal.

The district would receive some sort of compensation for those services, but that would have to be negotiated, Kidder said.

Exactly how the new school will operate is not known yet. Kidder said starting a conversion school is new territory for him, so he needs a year to research the process and get everything in place. He said he’s already visited Firefox Schools, which started as a high school in the Maysville school district in Muskingum County and became a separate entity, along with an intermediate school, for the 2010-11 school year. He also wants to see an elementary-level building at work.

“I plan on going to a couple of (conversion schools) if this is the direction we’re going,” he said.

Firefox officials were not available for comment Thursday.

Kidder’s intent would be to run Lawrence as close to its future conversion incarnation as possible in 2013-14. For now, that means with no principal and one less teacher.

The board voted this month not to renew Frontier High School Principal Jack Mental’s contract in a cost-cutting move. Kidder intends to assign Bill Creighton, currently splitting time between Lawrence and serving as assistant principal at the high school, to Mental’s old post.

If Lawrence remains open, Kidder may spend some time there himself handling principal duties, as he did recently when Mental was out for several weeks on medical leave.

Lawrence’s staff would be reduced from four teachers to three and classrooms altered from combinations of first and second, third and fourth and fifth and sixth to kindergarten through second and third through fifth. Sixth-graders would be split between Newport and New Matamoras.

Kidder said he still has to look into potential union issues and how staff might cross over to the conversion school.

Lawrence’s enrollment is 45 students. Kindergarten was removed from the school this year, and some residents said that hurt the school’s enrollment even more since parents may continue to send their children to the school they started.

Lawrence Township resident Christy Cobb, 29, said she’s fine with the way the school is structured now and believes it can work at the proposed reduced level as well.

“They’re still getting an education like kids in the other schools,” said Cobb, who has a 7-year-old son at Lawrence. “It’s not like they’re being under-educated at all.”

Having one more teacher than classes allows students to be broken out by grade level for math and reading lessons. Kidder said he would like to keep a similar arrangement if the school remains open for 2013-14.

At the board meeting, Kidder said becoming a conversion school could restore people’s confidence that Lawrence is going to be around for the future and attract more students. Increasing enrollment could also allow the school to hire additional staff, he said.

Cobb said she’s already talked to a couple people who might be willing to send their children to Lawrence if it becomes a conversion school. The school would not be limited to the geographic boundaries it has now.

“If people would just know what’s going to be out here,” they might consider it, Cobb said.

Kidder said he hopes enrollment does increase if Lawrence becomes a charter school because once they finish their time there, students might continue their education in the Frontier district, which boosts its enrollment.