School board weighs its options

COLUMBIANA – The Columbiana School District’s regular board of education meeting drew a crowd of staff members, parents, and one city councilman eager to learn the district’s plans for the future now that the $4 million bond issue was rejected by voters a second time.

For nearly two hours Superintendent Don Mook and Treasurer Lori Posey went over the district’s finances and needed facility improvements. Staff members showed concern as they listened to options now before the district regarding South Side Middle School.

The bond issue money would have gone toward refurbishing the 50-year-old school that houses students in fifth through eighth grades. While other improvements are needed, the priority has been replacing the aging flat roof that is leaking and causing other problems, like deterioration of the ceiling tiles.

The four options Mook presented to the board were to professionally patch the roof resulting in the closure of the 1962 section of the building and moving some students to other areas, professionally replacing the roof and temporarily displacing students, patching the roof using maintenance staff and closing the school moving all students to other areas, or professionally patching the roof and operating the building as usual.

“There are complications with all of these items,” he said.

Board member Mark Hutson suggested the board enter into executive session to discuss the options since some pertained to staffing.

Roughly a half hour later, the board returned from the closed door meeting and agreed option A was the best choice.

“I think the one that has made more sense to me at this time is option A. I think we could operate fairly well,” Mook said.

Option A is to professionally patch the roof and close the 1962 section of the building. As a result, fifth-grade students would be moved to Joshua Dixon Elementary on the other side of town and sixth-grade students would move to the 1969 addition of the building. Classrooms that are currently computer labs will convert back to grade level classrooms, he said.

Classrooms at Joshua Dixon that are currently used as special rooms will become grade level classrooms and additional lunches will need to be held for these students at the elementary and high schools.

As for staffing, fifth-grade teachers will move with support staff, and the latter will be reorganized. The middle school office will be combined with the high school office.

Some reductions are necessary under this option, according to Mook.

“The last thing I want to do is start letting staff members go,” Mook said. “We would have to restructure our entire staff to close the whole building. That is an option I presented, but I don’t believe that is the direction we should go.”

Option A would have a short-term financial risk as opposed to professionally replacing the roof, according to his presentation.

In order to pay for the replacement the district would need to spend general fund money, which takes away from what is used to pay staff salaries and other operational expenses.

Mook noted the district’s entire staff has been on a wage freeze the last three years.

“The community needs to understand our teaching staff and classified staff have done their work to try to make sure this district stays solid … The last thing I want to do is compromise the integrity of our programming,” he said.

The district is expected to operate on deficit spending beginning next year, although the cash balance will remain in the positive. By 2017, the cash balance is expected to dip in the hole by just under $300,000, according to the five-year financial forecast.

Councilman James King asked if the district could request a bond issue for the cost of the roof replacement only resulting in less of a tax increase for residents.

Mook said they could, but a new roof alone will not solve all of the problems.

“Do you put a roof on it and then operate it with the integrity of that building right now?” he said, adding that while the roof would be fixed the district would still need to go back and make other adjustments to the building down the road.

District parent Richard Hura, who helped chair the bond issue committee, asked where the district would get the money to spend on option A.

Mook responded the money would come from the general fund, but wouldn’t impact it as much as replacement would.

“You’re talking thousands of dollars versus hundreds of thousands of dollars,” he said, adding that informal estimates for replacement have run between $250,000 to $550,000.

He and Posey stressed the patching would be a short-term fix only. The patching would consist of removing the ceiling tiles in the 1962 section of the building and treating for mold during the 2013-14 school year.

Brooke Hitchcock, who has a student in the district, was concerned the tile removal would have negative impacts on students’ health, especially those with allergies or asthma.

Mook said the removal would occur during the summer months and a barrier would separate the older section from the 1969 addition.

“Option A is not a permanent fix, and we realize that, but we think option A is a way to take care of an immediate problem and do something for the benefit of the kids. I think what that allows us to do is close what is now the worst section of all of the buildings,” Hutson said.

Board members also agreed – following suggestions from Hura and district parent Dani Clancy and Councilman King – to try again for the bond issue at the November general election.

Clancy, Hura and Board member Kelly Witmer said it shouldn’t be too difficult to get the needed votes by that time, since the measure failed by only 129 at the May 7 election.

Clancy also noted the November election will draw more voters since more issues on the ballot, including the Columbiana mayoral and council races.

Posey said the resolution required for the bond to appear on the ballot will be presented at the next board meeting, as well as the legislation to move forward with professionally patching the middle school roof.

“I think we need to live by the motto ‘Don’t give up, don’t ever give up.’ As a council member I was extremely disappointed to see it go down,” King said of the bond.