A rift was evident last week as the Newbury Board of Education came together for a workshop to learn new details and create a scorecard, noting strengths and weaknesses, for a possible territory transfer to either West Geauga or Berkshire local school districts.
Newbury members differed on whether it is time to let the district disband and become part of another district or continue to work to keep Newbury an independent entity.
“I’m not there yet to make this district go away,” board member Martin Sanders said.
He said the district is half way through a 10-year plan and has continued to show improvement, but accused other board members of putting no time or effort into looking at whether the district could survive.
“It’s all or nothing and the sense I’m getting is it’s West Geauga or Berkshire, and there’s no independence,” Mr. Sanders said.
Other members, however, said the district continues to cost taxpayers as they see ever dwindling enrollment. “Is it fair to taxpayers?” Board member Terry Sedivy said. “I don’t think it’s fiscally responsible to have five in a class.”
Mr. Sanders said he believed the board is being fiscally responsible and blamed much of the loss of students on eight years of talk of mergers. He said that has made parents of young children look elsewhere for education possibilities. The older students are remaining because they want to finish with their friends, he said.
Mr. Sedivy said even if voters pass two renewal levies up next year, the board would still need to seek more money for maintenance of district buildings.
Board member Kimya Matthews said the district was able to pass its last levy, but called it a “Hail Mary.”
Board President Maggie Zock said she is now concerned with the numbers being presented, which showed declining enrollment, increased per-pupil costs and fewer class and extracurricular offerings than the other two districts.
“This data shows we have to explore this,” she said.
Cupp Report numbers
The board examined what was called the “Cupp Report” that provided a look at the percentage of students with disabilities, the average classroom teacher salaries, total expenditure per pupil and the local share of tax support in each district.
Newbury showed a higher percentage of students with disabilities (19.73 percent) compared with Berkshire (13.39 percent) and West Geauga (9.6 percent). The total expenditures per pupil was also highest for Newbury at $17,097 compared with Berkshire at $10,953 and West Geauga at $13,696.
Mr. Sanders said the Newbury number could be skewed because of the higher cost for disabled students and its higher percentage of those students.
Newbury Treasurer Sarah Palm said the average cost to the district for each disabled student is $26,500.
Newbury’s average classroom teacher salary was the lowest at $52,285 versus Berkshire’s $57,360 and West Geauga’s $69,937.
Mrs. Zock said the board needs to make a “data-driven decision that’s best for our students.”
Mr. Sanders said having smaller classes is one of the district’s strengths. “It is a smaller environment and they are not lost in the shuffle,” he said.
Board member Kirk Simpkins agreed, saying he has had experience dealing with the district’s offerings for disabled students with his daughter and that smaller classes are an advantage for those disabled. He said he has also seen schools that “could have cared less” about those students. While some parents have the advantage of choosing where to send their children who need special education, others do not.
Beverly Sustar, Geauga County deputy auditor, provided the board with a look at how a consolidation will impact taxing millage for residents in the district. Berkshire’s effective millage would drop from 24.9 to 23.6 if it has a territory takeover with Newbury. The same is true for West Geauga which would see a drop from 31.08 to 29.2 mills. Newbury, which now sees 43.9 mills, would drop to 23.6 mills if it joins Berkshire and to 29.2 mills with West Geauga.
Mrs. Sustar said the auditor’s office is currently working on an online calculator that would allow residents of the districts to determine how their taxes will be affected by joining either district, and the site is expected to be up and running within two to three weeks.
She said only Berkshire has an earned income tax that Newbury residents would have to pay if absorbed into that district. The tax does not apply to retirement income, she said, only earned wages.
A merger would also benefit Newbury Township, which would receive the 5.1 inside millage that the Newbury school district is now receiving, Mrs. Sustar said.
Trends in enrollment show Newbury declining from 2017 with 387 students to 342 in 2018. But, Mr. Simpkins noted all schools are showing a decline in enrollment.
“Anyway you look at it, everybody’s declining in enrollment,” Mr. Simpkins said. “Berkshire is getting a shiny new building, but their enrollment is declining.”
Mrs. Palm noted that the Newbury district has lost $597,123 to open enrollment and taken in $170,500.
Mrs. Zock said Newbury is losing people to the districts they are now talking with about a territory transfer.
Big, small, what’s better?
While Mr. Sanders maintained that the small district is one of its strengths, Mrs. Matthews said it is also one of its weakness because smaller numbers represent a lack of “diversity of ideas.”
Mr. Sedivy said it is simply a matter of economics and spending more and more for fewer students is not fiscally responsible. He also noted that it is unfair to gifted students, who may wish for more advanced placement courses.
Mr. Simpkins said Newbury may have teachers who could teach those advanced placement courses, but lack a sufficient number of students in those courses to justify them.
Mrs. Matthews said she is disappointed with the district’s graduation rate and wouldn’t mind paying Newbury’s taxes if the graduation rate were higher.
Newbury Superintendent Jacqueline Hoynes, noted that the graduation rate can be affected by new students to the district. She said one student came from an inner-city school in his junior year and did not graduate, affecting the overall view of graduation rates.
Junior and Senior High School Principal Michael Chaffee agreed, saying there can be more fluctuation in a smaller school population, noting that one student was in jail and unable to gradutate.
Mrs. Matthews said she continues to see between three and five students not graduate each year and that remains her concern.
Newbury has fewer extracurricular activities to offer than the other districts. Mr. Sanders said that can be a plus because students are able to participate in more sports and activities than they can at the larger schools. Mr. Simpkins agreed that students may not have those opportunities.
Mr. Sanders noted that one student asked whether they could form a lacrosse team, but it would have “devastated” the school’s baseball team because their schedules coincided.
He said Newbury’s record of student participation in extracurricular activities is high and he would like to see what that percentage is for the other schools.
Mrs. Matthews said with the district’s declining enrollment, however, she wondered if the school would have enough students for a football or soccer team.
Mr. Sanders expressed concern that the Berkshire district’s plans for a new school on the grounds of the Kent State University, Geauga campus, are moving along too slowly.
“My biggest concern is their Aug. 21 deadline is not that far ahead in planning and there’s still no water or sewer” providers, he said. “To me, we’re being wooed into a relationship to help them cover their costs. To me, that is unfair. Let them build it and then we’ll come in.”
He added that there are also always unforeseen costs with any building project.
Until that new school is built, he said, he questions whether Berkshire has the room to house Newbury students. He said some students are being schooled in trailers and that he did not want to see students bused all the way to Thompson Township.
Mrs. Zock said Berkshire and West Geauga officials have indicated that they would retain all of Newbury’s bus drivers. She said Newbury’s staff will be retained at least until next year as the earliest date of a territory transfer would be after the 2019-2020 school year.
Mr. Sanders continued to push for a review of how the district can remain independent. “We still haven’t looked at staying independent and what is needed to stay a viable school district,” he said.
But, Mrs. Matthews questioned when the decreasing numbers will be enough to say its time. “What number do you need before it’s too small?” she asked.
Mr. Sedivy said people are not moving into the township and the lack of young families will bring ever decreasing numbers of students. But, he said, the district will still have to find the money to maintain its buildings.
Mr. Sanders said the district must work toward being innovative and new to show the parents the district is stable. That will lead to students returning, he said. “It’s easy to sit here and tear things down, but there’s a lot of great things here too.”
Mrs. Zock said the community as a whole must decide the district’s fate. She said the district had 277 people respond to an online survey and the district has just begun a phone survey.
Mrs. Matthews said without looking at the possible territory transfer, Newbury would have no plan if future levies fail.
As the two differing opinions continued, Mr. Simpkins called for the board to move on. “We’re not going to change our minds and you’re not going to change yours,” he said. “We’re just spinning our wheels. “We’re not going to get anywhere now, so let’s move on.”