Lawrence open for 2013-’14

NEW MATAMORAS – Lawrence Elementary School will remain open, with kindergartners joining first- and second-graders in a single class, for the 2013-14 school year, Frontier Local Superintendent Bruce Kidder said Thursday.

How long that – and the overall makeup of the district – continues will be determined at least in part by the outcome of a November property tax levy, the precise amount of which will be determined at July’s board of education meeting.

“The structure of the schools right now is fine, and I hope to see it stay this way,” board President Justin Hoff said at the close of Thursday’s regular board meeting in the Frontier High School library. “But without this levy, something’s going to change.”

The board and administration have been discussing options for Lawrence in recent months, including closing the school outright as was proposed two years ago or transitioning it to a district-sponsored charter school. Uncertainty over state funding delayed a decision, and now district officials say the school will continue to operate much as it did this year.

But Lawrence Principal Bill Creighton is moving to the high school after high school Principal Jack Mental’s contract was not renewed in a cost-cutting move. Creighton split time between Lawrence and serving as an assistant principal at the high school in the school year just ended. For 2013-14, Kidder will handle most of the administrative responsibilities at Lawrence.

“Hopefully, it’ll run smoothly,” Kidder said. “If not, you can call me. I’ll either be the principal or the superintendent.”

The school divided grades one through six between three classrooms this year, with a fourth teacher providing support. For the new year, kindergartners will be added to the first- and second-grade class.

Lawrence supporters convinced the board to return kindergarten to the school on the eve of the 2011-12 school year, saying its loss would only seal the fate of the school, facing closure after that year. The school remained open but without a kindergarten for 2012-13.

Kidder has previously said returning kindergarten to Lawrence could help the school build up enrollment and help it be successful as a charter.

“I don’t really care what the numbers are; we are going to have kindergarten there one way or another,” he said Thursday.

That’s welcome news to Ludlow Township resident Milton Eddy, 36, who has a child starting kindergarten at Lawrence this year.

“We’re glad it’s back there,” he said.

Looking toward November, the board approved three separate resolutions Thursday allowing district officials to request millage amounts from the Washington County Auditor’s Office for five-year, emergency levies to generate $500,000, $550,000 or $600,000 a year. Kidder said the school funding picture is becoming clearer as the General Assembly works to finalize the biennial budget bill, but things could still change if Gov. John Kasich chooses to exercise his line-item veto powers.

“At our next board meeting, we should be able to know (what) our money will be,” Treasurer Frank Antill said.

At that July 15 session, the board is expected to vote to place one of the three amounts on the general election ballot.

District officials have said failure to pass a levy would result in changes for more than just Lawrence, with one possibility being the closing of either New Matamoras or Newport Elementary.

The uncertainty over how much money to seek is a result of efforts to develop a new state funding system for schools. Kasich proposed a formula earlier this year that would have left the amount of funding Frontier receives from the state flat at $5,190,054 over the course of the two-year budget. Changes made in the House of Representatives would have boosted the district’s state assistance by 6 percent each year, Kidder said.

What they are expecting now is about 2 percent more in fiscal year 2014 and less than 1 percent more in fiscal year 2015, he said.

“We’re not in the hole yet. We’re going to make it through next year,” Kidder said.

For the current fiscal year, the district spent about $600,000 more than it took in, eating into the $1.5 million cash carryover the district brought into fiscal year 2013. Kidder said he does not anticipate quite that big a deficit in the coming year, due to staffing reductions, including the rehiring of two employees – high school science teacher Tina Albrecht and Newport elementary special needs teacher Betty Neader.

Under the district’s labor agreement with teachers, rehired retirees come back at the bottom of the salary scale, although they still get credit for their level of education. They can only be signed to one-year contracts at a time.

“They get their retirement locked, and we get an experienced teacher at a starting teacher’s salary,” Kidder said.

Changes to the State Teachers Retirement System have encouraged a number of educators to retire this year or face a five-year period with no cost-of-living increase.