No decision made on future of Lawrence school

NEW MATAMORAS – No decision was made Thursday on the fate of Lawrence Elementary and the future of the Frontier Local school district, with board members and the administration saying there’s not enough information to know the financial impact of any course of action.

Board members indicated last month they wanted to determine a direction at Thursday’s meeting. But Superintendent Bruce Kidder said the unsettled state budget – including a new school-funding formula – leaves too many unknowns.

“Are they going to make a decision tonight? Probably not. Because I don’t have all of the numbers I need,” he said.

The bulk of the meeting was still taken up by public discussion of the district’s options. Residents agreed on little more than that the best interests of all students in the district should be pursued. Sharp disagreements arose over the best way to do so.

Supporters of Lawrence, the oldest building in the district with the smallest enrollment, want to see the school become a district-sponsored charter, or conversion, school. This would, for the most part, take Lawrence off the district’s books as the school would be supported directly by state funding.

However, that’s money that would have gone to Frontier – assuming the students attending the charter school would have remained in the district if the school was closed outright.

“We would be throwing $250,000 out of our state money, not throwing it, but giving it to another option,” said Steve Foutty, 45, of Newport. “Anything that we can do to avoid cuts, we ought to do … because kids lose.”

Some of those present questioned the charter plan because, as presented in figures at the March board meeting, it was expected to require one or two mills more in a levy than closing Lawrence and converting Newport and New Matamoras elementary to K-3 and 4-6 buildings.

But former board member Dean Booth said that using new calculations, the charter option would not cost district residents any additional money and would likely secure Lawrence supporters’ votes to pass a levy, something board members said the district needs no matter which scenario is pursued.

“The beauty of giving Lawrence a chance and putting a community school out there is it would unite it with Frontier,” Booth said.

Some of those in attendance suggested Lawrence supporters were threatening the district by saying they wouldn’t vote for a levy if the school was closed.

Board President Justin Hoff said none of the scenarios presented – even closing Lawrence and another elementary – would negate the need for a levy.

“All these options cost money,” he said. “Even if we go to one building, we’re not saving enough to break even.”

The one-elementary approach would require less millage than the other plans. However, Treasurer Frank Antill said the levy numbers provided in March were no longer being used and he had no estimates of how much a levy would be under any of the options due to the uncertainty over the state funding formula, which provides approximately 80 percent of the district’s money.

Kelli Semon, 44, a resident of Benton Township, Monroe County, whose children attend New Matamoras Elementary through open enrollment, opposed the proposal to convert the other elementary to grade-level buildings.

“I don’t understand that at all because you’re still going to have the same amount of kids,” she said.

Kidder said closing Lawrence would divert those students who remained in the district to the other elementary, potentially pushing some classes over 30 students. No grade would have more than 60 though, which means the district could use two teachers per grade – if every student in the grade was in the same building.

“Then I have both third-grade teachers in the same place at the same time,” he said. “If 22 of them are up here and 38 of them are down there, I’ve got to hire a third teacher.”

On average, salary and benefits for a teacher cost the district about $50,000 a year.

Semon asked whether closing Lawrence would free up enough money to afford the extra teachers needed.

“All the money you’re going to save there, why not leave the two grade schools the way they are?” she said.

In response to a question from Semon, Kidder said going to grade-level buildings would increase the time students spend on school buses by an average of 18 to 20 minutes. Some parents balked at that, but Booth pointed out that’s also why Lawrence supporters want to keep their school open.

“A kid inconvenienced at Lawrence … should be the same concern as an inconvenience of a kid at Newport having to go to New Matamoras,” he said.

Foutty, a teacher in another area district, said his objections to the plan were based strictly on educational issues – having Lawrence students in classes consisting of two or three grade levels and using district resources to keep Lawrence’s small class sizes while students at New Matamoras and Newport sometimes are in classes of 30.

“I think small schools are the best,” he said. “But I don’t think that’s fair to all the kids in the district.”

Booth said parents who want their children in smaller classes have always had the option of attending Lawrence through open enrollment and still would. However, the distance to travel and not being in their own community are usually cited as reasons why they don’t choose to do so, he said.

Also speaking against the charter school plan was Rachel Jordan McElfresh, field representative for the region’s Ohio Association of Public School Employees union. She pointed to statistics that show 64 percent of charter schools are classified under academic watch or emergency on state report cards, compared to just 9 percent of public schools.

Kidder said a conversion school, a specific type of charter sponsored by a school district, are different from charters run by for-profit companies. And Booth suggested Jordan McElfresh’s main concern was charter employees eventually voting to leave the union.

“The only thing that this lady’s concerned about is de-certifying,” he said.

Jordan McElfresh denied that.

“We want to have good jobs in this district,” she said.

Kidder said the union could vote to de-certify but more union jobs would be lost immediately if Lawrence closed. And even if the jobs at the charter school were no longer union, they likely still would be filled by area residents, he said.

“Either way, community members are going to have a job,” Kidder said.

Board member Jeff Lauer said residents will ultimately decide the shape of the district by how they vote on whatever levy in placed on the November ballot.

“If you say no, then things are going to change for everybody,” he said.

“Then we as a board have no choice but to make the very hard decisions to make this district stay financially afloat,” Lauer said. “If you want to keep what you have, it’s going to cost us. All.”