CAMDEN — Preble Shawnee Local School District Board of Education members and administrators discussed plans to return to school in the fall, and continued an ongoing debate about the closure of West Elkton Intermediate School, during a regular monthly meeting Thursday, June 25.
Dr. Matt Bishop discussed his and other Preble County school district superintendents’ continuing discussions with Preble County Health Department officials over whether and how to return to school in the fall.
“We’re trying to look at what the data says, and how we can return to school as normal as possible,” Bishop said. Bishop said the districts were hoping to announce details of a definitive plan in mid-July.
“We want to make sure whatever we announce is as close to the final plan as possible,” Bishop said, citing the controversy that erupted earlier this year when preliminary graduation ceremony plans were announced.
Bishop said that masks would likely be optional for students if in-person classes resume in the fall, but that teachers would probably have to wear masks during at least part of the school day.
“A teacher standing up in front of the class doesn’t necessarily have to wear the mask, but if they go to the desk and start working one-on-one with a student they would have to,” Bishop said.
Bishop also said he believed guidelines from the Ohio Dept. of Education and Governor Mike DeWine’s office would allow freedom for individual school districts in how to address the dangers of COVID-19.
“I think there’s going to be a lot of flexibility to allow schools to work with their local health departments to come up with a plan,” Bishop said.
“My biggest concern right now is connectivity,” Bishop continued, referencing the fact that students living in rural areas may still have limited internet access to allow them to complete online assignments. “We need to make sure people are able to access education regardless of where their street address is.”
Bishop stressed the rushed nature of preparations after schools were ordered closed in March, and said that a more reasoned response is needed in the event that another shutdown is ordered during the coming school year.
“This year we just kind of got through it,” Bishop said. “But that can’t be how we respond next time.”
Levies and bond issues
The board also discussed whether to place another .75-percent income tax levy on the ballot to fund general operations costs for the district in November, as well as whether to continue trying to pass a property tax bond issue to fund construction of a new school building.
As discussed during a pair of public hearings held earlier this month, the school district is facing a serious deficit as a result of the previous operations levy and bond issue failing at the polls in April, as well as costs associated with state-ordered school closures due to COVID-19 and anticipated cuts to state education funding announced by Gov. Dewine in May.
Board Vice President Jeff Wood came down strongly in favor of getting an operations levy passed before trying to sell another bond issue.
“I think we’d have enough trouble just passing the operations levy,” Wood said.
Board member Gary Rader agreed.
“The operations levy is the most important thing we need to focus on,” Rader said. “We need to let people know we can’t keep going the way we’re going and survive.”
Board member Nick Duskey expressed similar sentiments.
“We have to keep running the operations levy until it passes,” Duskey said. “If we continue to run that alongside a bond that’s unpopular, that will cause the operations levy to fail.”
“At this point, I’m hesitant to do anything that may cause controversy,” Duskey continued. “Our focus should be on keeping the district from heading toward insolvency.”
Board member Charlie Biggs reiterated the importance of putting a bond issue for a new building on the ballot at some point, however.
“Eventually we have to pass a bond,” Biggs said. “We have to do something.”
Board president Julie Singleton agreed, and also stressed running the bond issue once the levy is already passed could be problematic.
“The likelihood of passing something after an operations levy is not very good,” Singleton said.
West Elkton Intermediate
Dr. Bishop stressed the district would still face a deficit of at least $800,000 even if the levy in November passes, meaning that administrators must either reduce expenses or increase revenue.
“The easiest and biggest [expense] that we look at is West Elkton,” Bishop said, noting that the elimination of 8 to 10 staff members, as well as utility costs associated with the facility, would save the district approximately $460,000 annually.
That leaves the question of where to house students who will be displaced by the closure, according to Bishop, as well as whether to close the building immediately — before the start of the 2020-21 school year — or next fall.
Duskey and Singleton were not in favor of moving fifth graders from West Elkton to the Junior and Senior High, where they would share a building with high schoolers, some of them legal adults.
“I feel like the fifth-graders could potentially suffer educationally in that scenario,” Duskey said. Rader felt this was a better plan than placing students in modular classrooms, temporary structures built adjacent to Camden Primary, however.
“People do it all the time. They’re air-conditioned. People say they love them, that teachers love them, that it works out great,” Rader said of the modular facilities. “But then a couple weeks ago a gentleman from West Elkton showed up and said, ‘You guys have invested so much money in security and safety with the School Resource Officers, and you’re going to be putting kids in a camper that you could shoot a BB gun through.’ And that hit home with me.”
“Knowing that we’ve got space out there at the high school — putting fifth-graders out there, it’s not my first choice,” Rader continued. “But knowing we could put them out there in a brick building. If something bad would happen, I’d hate to be the one sitting here saying that I stuck our kids out there and hung them out to dry.”
Rader recommended putting fourth-graders in the building currently housing Board of Education offices at Camden Primary and placing fifth-graders on the top floor of the Junior and Senior High, where they would be less likely to interact with upperclassmen.
Rader was also in favor of closing West Elkton now, rather than waiting until the end of the coming school year, saying this would result in immediate savings of nearly $390,000 for the district, as well as ensuring all students would be housed in secure, air-conditioned buildings.
Most board members opposed this plan, however, with Singleton stating six weeks was simply not enough time to relocate students and classroom materials; Biggs pointing out that closing in 2021 would give the district “a whole year to experiment” with regards to finding new locations for classroom facilities; and Bishop saying the later closing date would allow district employees whose jobs are about to be eliminated time to seek other employment.
Bishop and Singleton also stated, adding the complications of a move to already existing uncertainties about the coming school year due to COVID-19 could make an already tough situation even more difficult.
K-6 music instructor Cody McPherson cautioned against moving students into existing facilities if it would result in dedicated music and art classrooms being repurposed, citing research demonstrating the importance of arts education, and the fact that squeezing those courses into rooms designed for normal academic instruction would be less than ideal.
“I’d rather tough it out through one more year with no A/C if it means saving educational services,” McPherson said.
“If that’s part of pushing fourth and fifth-graders into Camden, then I don’t like that idea,” Singleton said.
Eighth-grade science instructor Jennifer Bauerschmidt, meanwhile, pointed out the drawbacks of moving students into the Junior and Senior High rather than placing them in modular classrooms.
“There may be enough room to potentially squeeze the fifth and sixth grade in, but it’s not going to be conducive at all to teaching the way we need to be able to teach,” Bauerschmidt said. “I know you’re going to save a lot of money, but for every positive there’s always a negative, and I can tell you the drawback here is that [students] are not going to get the education they did this year before COVID. It’s going to be very, very compromised.”
Bauerschmidt also referenced concerns about social distancing.
“I can only imagine what adding another 200 or so bodies is going to look like,” Bauerschmidt said.
The board ultimately decided to consult principals at the West Elkton, Camden and Junior/Senior High facilities before making a final decision about when to close West Elkton. A special meeting will be held Thursday, July 2, at the Board of Education offices for a final vote on the issue.
Reach Anthony Baker at 937-683-4057 or on Facebook @improperenglish