CAMDEN — Moving forward after a three time loss by a proposed Preble Shawnee tax levy might prove easier said than done as the two different campaigns — “no voters” versus “yes voters” — battle over whether to close West Elkton as the Preble Shawnee Board of Education previously decided.
However, as Superintendent Matt Bishop pointed out during a board meeting on Thursday, Jan. 5, thinking of the district as two different “camps” is only hurting the school’s future and, according to Bishop, the community needs to come together to find a project that the majority will readily support.
Again, easier said than done following a harsh election period which left many voters feeling ignored and emotional.
Those emotions came to a head during the last board meeting.
In several meetings the previous board has discussed how to move forward with a clean slate, but January inducted a new board (even though only two members are actually “new.”) The new board has the right to make decisions which might not line up with the old decisions made.
One decision many in the public are hoping might be different has everything to do with public participation. According to board policy, Preble Shawnee allows a total of 30 minutes at the beginning of every meeting for public participation. Currently, each speaker is allotted three minutes to speak freely.
Camden Councilman Kelly Doran was the only member of the public to use his time at the Jan. 5 meeting, however, his appeal set the tone for the rest of the meeting, making it so the public could speak throughout the meeting without fear of reprimand.
“Going forward here with the new discussion for what you want to do with the district, I don’t think three minutes is enough time for anyone to clearly state what is on their mind. As we get further into this, there are a lot of people here with a lot of good ideas that they would love to share and we need to hear from them,” Doran said.
“I don’t know if you can suspend the rules or set aside a block of time, but I think you could get valuable information from the audience. They can vent their spleen — there will be a lot of things you won’t want to hear, but good information will come from it. I think in the future I would like for you to consider opening public participation, not for every meeting, but every once in awhile.”
Board member Julie Singleton asked if there was a way to allot additional time to public participation or if anyone had any ideas.
“One of the things I considered is open dialogue during public participation,” board member Bill Crawford said. “It should be a discussion. If somebody says something to us we should respond and discuss. It is not an open discussion if we’re no allowed to respond. Its kind of meaningless.”
Board President Jeff Wood had a suggestion he had been planning to bring up during discussion items. He suggested, in addition to having a public participation at the beginning of the meeting they also have public participation at the end of the meeting.
“I don’t have a problem taking heat or long meetings. We would have a public participation in the beginning and then one at the end,” Woods said.
Bishop suggested the board talk about this issue during the February work session. He promised to get examples from other boards and other local government meetings to present to them.
This left the board meeting open to public participation throughout, allowing the public to air some of their grievances and suggestions.
Superintendent Bishop had two informational items which inspired different emotions from the audience.
The first was a community engagement update.
“This is just an extension of what we’ve been discussing the past couple of meetings. We need to try to engage the community and the thought was to have someone facilitate it that is not necessarily the board or administration, that way it is a fresh set of people that is trying to engage all the different groups in our community,” Bishop said.
“We talked about SHP Leading Designs since that is the group that is pretty familiar with us and they took us through the last bond levy process, but it was mentioned that it might be a good idea to look at other options too. What I came up with is an RFQ, a request for qualifications.”
The district will be publicizing for firms who would be interested in leading the community engagement piece. They will also hand select several firms to look over the project. According to Bishop, they hope to review offers in February and select four firms to present to the board during a work session.
At the end of this process, the board can pick a firm or start the process over again.
President Wood pointed out he would not want the original two-building plan to be scrapped, as he believes that after this community engagement process many people might approve of the original plan. He expressed that no plan, at this point, should be ruled out.
“Everything should be on the table for this sort of community engagement,” Singleton affirmed.
Which lead Bishop to his next point — whether the board should “pause” the previous resolution to close West Elkton.
“I think it would be important to have everyone at the table feel like their voices matter. We want to come up with a plan that the majority of the community would be positive about. The resolution to close West Elkton, it is my opinion that it gets in the way of accomplishing that goal,” Bishop said.
“I am not saying that it wasn’t a good idea on its face, especially with the amount of square footage we have versus students, but to get to the goal of accomplishing what we want to with community engagement, I believe that this would be a big impediment to that. I’m suggesting that we pause that resolution and allow the community engagement process to play out,” he added.
“Once we see what the community says, we can revisit this resolution. We can reinstate it or do something different,” Bishop continued. “We don’t want to move people from West Elkton and then find out that three buildings is the only thing our community would support and have to move everybody back. To get the best resolution of this, it would be to just stop and not do that action.”
Bishop presented this option not as a resolution for the board to vote on during the meeting, but rather as something for them to discuss and then vote on at the next meeting. He still has to discuss with legal representatives on the proper way to “pause” this resolution.
“Leaving West Elkton open, what does that mean?” Singleton questioned. “As a new board member, I was previously in the public and West Elkton was horrible and crashing down around us. Why are we leaving students in West Elkton and not looking? Is there room in Camden?”
Bishop answered that Camden Primary is “jam packed.”
Crawford commented, “West Elkton is not falling down around us. We held many events at the school and there is nothing there that cannot be maintained or updated. I toured the school as a firefighter and community member and it is a good school — it is in better shape than Camden.”
“Not according to the State Grades,” Wood noted.
“Would you want to put money into a building that doesn’t even have enough students in it? I just want to understand, because that resolution was passed for a good reason. How much are we going to have to put into it to keep it open? Is that more than what it would cost to move students?” Singleton asked.
“When you consider that money that you put into the school, you also have to consider the value that the community puts on it,” Crawford said. “That, to me, is much more valuable than the money we save by closing it. I don’t know how you put a price on that.”
“I understand Dr. Bishop’s recommendation and I am willing to go along with it, possibly, but you know we passed the resolution for a good reason. We passed it because all three schools are inadequate and unsafe. It doesn’t change the fact that if we vote to keep West Elkton open for another year we can’t operate the three schools on our current budget without an infusion of a large amount of money from the State and possibly tax payers,” Wood said.
“If I were to vote yes on this it would only be because we need to keep it open to hold students while we build or renovate other buildings.”
District resident Shelley George asked if she could speak on the issue. “If you guys are not going to close then you are going to lose all credibility in this community,” she said. “All of our trust that we have in you was based on closing West Elkton. If you guys do this you are going to have to explain this as clear as a bell, because those yes voters are going to be gone.”
“Our goal here is not to do something that would maintain the yes voters, it is to convert the no voters into yes voters with a different plan,” Crawford said. “The majority are the no voters.”
“The purpose of the resolution to pause is that we know how important this engagement piece is,” Bishop said. “This will help bring everybody to the table and have them participate in that process. If this process fails and we don’t get a result that points to the direction we need to go, I don’t know what to do from that point.”
George said, “I understand that, but you will have to explain it so clearly.”
“I just want to put us in the best position moving forward so this engagement piece will work,” Bishop said. “It is that critical to us. I feel like we are at a crossroads and whatever we can do to make that successful, we have to. At the end of the day if the resolution stands then we will be ready to close on time. It is not going to be pretty.
“For this to work we have to be on the same page and not have any disenfranchised voters. Equally important are the yes voters — they cannot abandon us, because ultimately the plan we have come up with is not going to be successful and all we are doing is hurting this community as a school district from moving forward.”
The board also had to approve a resolution requesting the Ohio Facilities Construction Commission to establish a new scope, estimated basic project cost, and local share in the classroom facilities assistance program.
Bishop explained, this resolution was requested by the OFCC and asks districts who would like to enter into the planning process in the future with OFCC to pass a resolution giving an idea as to which of the four meetings the district would likely request the Commission approve the plan.
The resolution is absolutely necessary for OFCC to move forward and is completely non-binding for the district. It will simply allow Preble Shawnee to begin working on a new master plan if they decide to take state dollars in partnering with OFCC in the future.
The board of education plan was to vote on whether to pause the resolution to close West Elkton during a special meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 16, too late for press time. This decision will set the tone for how the board moves forward with the public.
Reach Kelsey Kimbler at 937-683-4061 or on Twitter @KKimbler_RH