KENT: The Jan. 28 announcement that Kent City Schools would close one of its five elementary buildings this summer was a painful revelation to many in the community.
But it won’t be the only hit the district takes as officials try to stave off a $7.6 million deficit they see coming by the 2017 fiscal year.
The Kent Board of Education met Tuesday night to discuss cuts Superintendent Joe Giancola and his staff have proposed at the middle and high school levels.
Possibilities range from reducing the use of teachers in special programs to marketing the district’s swimming pool to evening and weekend customers.
Giancola outlined several budget-trimming ideas that could reduce the district’s staff by a dozen or so. An administrative team will work through the ideas in depth before reporting back to the board.
The cuts are coming less than a year after Kent voters approved an 8.9-mill levy to provide the district with $4.25 million in new annual funds, and that has raised eyebrows among some parents who have filled recent board meetings.
School officials said they repeatedly warned the community, however, that passage of last May’s tax issue had to be paired with savings measures to balance the budget.
Board President Rebekah Wright Kulis said during the levy campaign more than 50 community presentations were made and “in each of them, we said the levy would not fill the gap.”
While the cost-cutting ideas announced Tuesday will give staff and parents something new to think about, it was clear the pending closure of Franklin Elementary is still the most controversial of the board’s plans.
Kent hasn’t shuttered a school since Emma Williard Elementary was closed in 1978.
Closing Franklin will save the district about $1.3 million a year.
The district has four other elementary schools: Davey, Holden, Loncoy and Walls.
Franklin seemed a logical choice, Giancola said.
Its enrollment of 192 students in kindergarten through fifth grade, served by a staff of 13 teachers, makes it the smallest of the elementaries — something that was not likely to change.
Kent’s total enrollment has dropped from 4,400 children in 1993 to 3,300 in 2013, a 25 percent decrease. Housing and demographic trends in the city suggest that slide will continue at a rate of up to 1 percent per year for the foreseeable future, Giancola said.
At a building level, Franklin has been declining slightly faster than the others, he said. Also, the facility is more costly to maintain than its sister buildings.
Like Davey, it was built in the 1920s. Davey, however, was renovated in the 1990s after a bond issue passed; Franklin was not. As a result, overhead at outdated Franklin costs more per pupil, Giancola said.
He added that Franklin has always had something of a target on its back. A previous strategic plan suggested replacing the building, but the district had no money for that.
Then last year, a new strategic planning committee of 16 staff members and parents created a five-year plan that included the possibility of closing a school. Franklin’s name was tossed about often, the superintendent said.
Still, Franklin’s fate appeared to be decided quickly last month, with parents saying they were given no notice nor an opportunity for input when the board made the call Jan. 28.
A week later, more than 300 people packed a special meeting, asking the board to reverse its decision and admonishing board members for not being more transparent.
Stacia Kaschak, parent of two Franklin students, said the school board neglected to follow its own written rules on the matter.
“According to their own policy, a comprehensive closing study needs to be done,” she said. That is something board members have acknowledged was not done.
Kaschak said she doesn’t question the need to make cuts.
“I do believe they are not fiscally sound, but how they got to that point is questionable, and what cost-savings measures they are taking is questionable,” she said. “But why would you decide to close a school without involving the community?”
After the special meeting earlier this month, Giancola issued a letter to the community through the district’s website, apologizing for a “lapse of thorough dialogue.”
This week, Giancola said if he could do it over again, he would have done more to draw the attention of parents to last year’s strategic planning process, and specifically brought more Franklin parents into the discussion.
But the decision on Franklin is over, and the board is moving forward, he said.
On Tuesday, the board approved Giancola’s request to create three advisory committees made up of staff and parents to tackle some issues.
A Franklin Transition Team will advise the board on how to handle the move of students to other schools, a Redistricting Team will consider how neighborhood boundaries might be redrawn for the remaining four elementary schools, and a third committee will be asked to generate ideas for making money with the district’s swimming pool.
It’s unknown how many teachers will lose their jobs when Franklin closes, but Giancola said there is likely to be some reduction in force.
Reforms in the state pension system might motivate a round of retirements this year and next, he said, so teachers cut this year might get the option to return next year.
The district has no plans to sell Franklin, he added. The building might be useful for other educational programs, Giancola said, such as for Head Start or LEAP.
Here are other cost-cutting measures he proposed Tuesday:
• About 100 students involved in a pair of special programs at Central School Annex — one dealing with at-risk students and another for children with multiple disabilities — would be moved next door to Roosevelt High School. The nine teachers used for those programs would be reduced to six. Central would be available for lease.
• Middle school and preschool programs could be redesigned in ways that would reduce staff.
• The district could use classroom aides provided by the Portage County Education Service Center rather than more costly district employees.
• A social worker position would be cut to half-time and each building would lose one lunch monitor.
• Student events that don’t need to take place on weekends would be moved to weeknights, when a custodian is already on duty.
• New buses would be leased over five years rather than purchased outright.
• Negotiations underway with two unions could result in some services being contracted privately. School officials would not say what services are under discussion.