NEW MATAMORAS - Lawrence Elementary's days as a traditional Frontier Local district school appear numbered, but that doesn't mean the school's doors are closing.
Frontier Superintendent Bruce Kidder presented a trio of options for the future makeup of the district to more than 40 people in the Frontier High School cafeteria Thursday evening as part of the board of education's regular monthly meeting. Two would involve closing the small-but-beloved school, while the other would transition it to a district-sponsored charter school.
"It's a win-win for the district, not just one community, but the whole district," said Lawrence Township resident John Thomas.
The reorganization is needed because deficit spending is on pace to exhaust the district's cash reserves in less than three years, Kidder and Treasurer Frank Antill said.
A decision on which course of action to take is expected at the April board meeting, scheduled for 7 p.m. Thursday, April 18, at the high school. But the belt-tightening began Thursday with the non-renewal of high school Principal Jack Mental's contract on a 5-0 vote.
* Option 1 - Lawrence Elementary becomes a charter school in 2014-15; New Matamoras and Newport elementaries remain as they are. For 2013-14, Lawrence goes to two classes - kindergarten through second and third through fifth - while sixth-graders go to the other elementaries. A levy for eight or nine mills appears on the November ballot.
* Option 2 - Close Lawrence; go to grade-level buildings at New Matamoras and Newport (one kindergarten through third, the other fourth through sixth). A levy for about seven mills appears on the November ballot.
* Option 3 - Go to one elementary school building in 2014-15. Either the old gym at Newport or the red building at New Matamoras would be renovated for additional classroom space or portable classrooms for sixth-graders set up at Frontier High School. A levy for two or three mills appears on the November ballot.
"This is an administrative cut to save money," Kidder said. "That is not a reflection on his ability whatsoever."
Mental's annual salary is $57,797, and he has the least seniority of the district's four principals. Kidder said he plans to recommend Will Creighton take Mental's place. Creighton is currently serving as Lawrence principal and assistant principal at the high school, although he filled in while Mental was out on medical leave for several weeks recently.
The charter school option is the only one presented that would keep Lawrence open beyond the 2013-14 school year.
One would have New Matamoras and Newport Elementary schools go to grade-level buildings, with all kindergarten-through-third-graders in the district attending one school and fourth-through-sixth graders at the other. The third option would close one of those schools as well - each built a little over 10 years ago - and gather all elementary students in the district under one roof.
All three options would require additional levy funding, but how much is yet to be determined.
Kidder estimated the charter option would require 8 or 9 mills because state funding for students who continue to attend Lawrence would follow them there, where it would be used for salaries and maintaining the building.
Closing Lawrence and going to grade-level buildings would need about seven mills because at least some of the Lawrence students - and the accompanying state funding - would remain in the district, although some would likely opt to attend another district via open enrollment.
Going to one elementary school would save the most money, but Kidder said if that was the community and board's choice he would still seek 2 or 3 mills in November.
One resident asked what would happen if voters did not approve a levy.
"We don't want to think about that," board President Justin Hoff said.
Kidder said the single grade-school approach would be the only choice, but the administration and board wouldn't have to worry about it for long - because the state would step in due to the district's financial situation.
Former board member Dean Booth, who has opposed the closure of Lawrence since it was first proposed two years ago, said he believes the charter option would give the district the best chance of passing a levy, this year and in the future.
"The district would finally know, once and for all, that Lawrence isn't going to cost them anything," he said. "Lawrence would finally know that Frontier had given them a good, honest shot."
The district is expected to spend nearly $600,000 more than it takes in this year, dropping its cash reserve to about $1 million, Frontier Treasurer Frank Antill said. Another year like that would put the district at about half of the $800,000 cash reserve needed to fund the district for 40 days. If the pattern continued the district would have a negative fund balance, which is not allowed under Ohio law.
If residents and board members decide to go with the charter option, Kidder said the 2013-14 school year would be used to run Lawrence like it would be as a charter school, to determine how much it would cost and identify the best practices. He's recommending the school once again have a kindergarten class but dividing its sixth-graders between New Matamoras and Newport.
"I only pulled the sixth grade out ... thinking about what would be the most successful way for you to start out there," Kidder said in response to a resident's question. "You've got to have the lower ones for people to believe you're going to grow."
Lawrence currently has combined classes of first and second, third and fourth and fifth and sixth grades, but Kidder is proposing only two classes for the next year and the start of the charter phase: kindergarten through second and third through fifth.
Several people at the meeting expressed reservations, but not Barbara Richards, now in her 40th year teaching at Lawrence, said it can be done and she can do it.
"I teach first and second at Lawrence now, and I'm willing to teach kindergarten through second," said Richards, who taught kindergarten for 36 years.
"We have the parent support over there," she added after the meeting. "We have it. So I'm not one bit worried."
Kidder said if Lawrence grew in its charter incarnation, it could hire more teachers and the school's success will ultimately be beneficial to the district as a whole.
"They're Frontier kids too," he said. "And I need them to be successful out there because they're going to be up here (at the high school) too."
The charter plan would also allow the district to keep Newport and New Matamoras as K-6 buildings, Kidder said. Presumably most students at Lawrence would remain there, so class sizes at the other schools would not increase and cut into the district's savings by requiring more teachers.