In 2012, the New Albany-Plain Local School District gained voter approval for an operating levy and bond issue, made several staffing changes and likely regained its top rating on the Ohio Department of Education's state report card, among several other important developments.

In 2012, the New Albany-Plain Local School District gained voter approval for an operating levy and bond issue, made several staffing changes and likely regained its top rating on the Ohio Department of Education's state report card, among several other important developments.

The most talked about school story in New Albany was Issue 50, which included a 2.59-mill bond issue to generate $45.1 million and a 4.24-mill continuous operating levy to generate $3.51 million.

The bond and levy request was approved Nov. 6 by a count of 4,916 votes to 4,783 votes, according to certified results released Nov. 27 by the Franklin County Board of Elections.

The bond issue will pay for a new non-grade specific building for 1,200 students and $11.4 million for site improvements, and the levy will prevent a deficit in fiscal year 2015, according to district officials.

Superintendent April Domine said the district already has made "requests for qualifications" from local architects to start the building process in 2013.

Issue 50 will cost property owners $209.24 per year -- about $130 for the levy and $79 for the bond issue -- per $100,000 of assessed property value. The owner of a home valued at $400,000, for example, will pay about $837 per year in additional property taxes for the bond and levy.

District voters previously approved a 24.4-mill permanent operating levy in 2008 to collect $21.7 million per year -- almost half of the district's roughly $50 million budget. The continuing levy, which was a first for the district, costs about $750 per year per $100,000 of assessed property value, or about $3,000 for the owner of a $400,000 home.

More on district finances

The district earned some negative publicity for paying more than $6 million in March to end a controversial "bond swap" refinancing deal initiated in 2007.

As part of the bond swap agreement, which is known as "synthetic refunding," the district sold the right to refinance bonds initially issued in 2001 and 2002 to Dexia Credit Local, a third-party investment company in Europe. The board members at that time -- none of whom are on the current board -- voted to receive an upfront lump-sum payment of $1.1 million from Dexia in exchange for Dexia's right to refinance the bonds in the future.

The interest rate was fixed between 5 percent and 6 percent, and Dexia was to make payments to the district based on market interest rates, which fluctuate, until Dexia could resell the bonds when eligible in 2011 and 2012.

Emmett Kelly, the district's bond counsel when the deal was reported in stories by ThisWeek and the Columbus Dispatch, said that in 2011, Dexia had the district recall the 2000 bonds and reissue $8.1 million in long-term notes. The district had to pay the company based on the bond's original interest rates.

However, when Dexia got into trouble because of the European financial crisis, the school board used its rights to dissolve the deal by paying fees of $6.1 million, which was included in the $38 million issued as part of the 2012 refinancing.

The deal still saved $1.3 million overall in the repayment of bonds, according to district officials.

Since the bond swap raised so many questions, the school board changed its fiscal policy to "ensure that the most cost-effective and practical refinancing option is selected" and "debt refinancing will occur only after a thorough evaluation of refunding opportunities."

The policy includes six conditions to be placed on bond refinancing, the last five of which are linked. They are:

* "Refinancing efforts will be done utilizing traditional methods that do not involve complex interest-rate swaps or synthetic bond refunding."

* "A refinance will occur solely for the purpose of achieving interest-rate savings; and the maximum term of the refinancing bond does not exceed the term of the original bonds; and the minimum net present value savings on the refinanced bond must be at least 3 percent and $100,000; and the realized interest savings from the refinancing will benefit the district, not the underlying borrowers; and the fiscal officer and the financial review and reporting committee shall review and approve the debt instruments prior to their execution."

School board member Mark Ryan said in September the board also asked an audit team from the state of Ohio and a local audit team from Kennedy Cottrell Richards of Gahanna to further review the deal from a third-party perspective.

The school board also increased the size of its financial review and reporting committee, an advisory group of district officials and community members formed in 2010 to "share business and financial best practices from private and public sectors, review financial forecasts and audit results, review and provide feedback regarding expenditure practices and review schedules of levies."

When two community positions opened in 2011, the board chose to increase the number of district residents from five to seven. Molly Cooper, William Neville, Kevin Stahl and Brian Steel joined community members Dave Demers, Phil Derrow and Parag Patel, school board members Ryan and Cheri Lehmann, Domine, union representatives from the district's two labor organizations and the district's treasurer and director of operations.

New faces and roles

New hires in 2012 included several building principals; a director of teaching and learning; a chief of innovation, improvement and human capital; and a communications director. Longtime treasurer Brian Ramsay also left the district in July and was replaced by an interim treasurer.

School board president Laura Kohler said Domine has been able to put together a new leadership team in the past year through retirements and administrators leaving.

"We're thrilled with the people we've been able to attract and hire who are completely committed to the mission and the vision the board is working toward," Kohler said.

Domine reorganized much of the district's elementary and middle school administrations.

In the K-1 and 2-5 buildings, the three elementary principals and an elementary dean of students were reorganized as a head of elementary schools, two assistant principals, a K-1 principal and an elementary dean of students.

Jennifer Denny, initially hired in February as the K-1 principal, became the elementary head of schools.

Denny has two assistant principals: Diana Smith, who has taught for 19 years, nine of which were at New Albany; and Steve Lesco, the former elementary dean of students.

The elementary dean of students is Andy Roeth, who formerly was a teacher in the district.

The K-1 principal is Susann Wittig, who was hired May 29..

The middle school formerly had a principal, an assistant principal and a dean of students. It now has a principal and two assistant principals.

Interim Principal Kip Greenhill replaced Andy Culp, who resigned in July to become assistant superintendent of the Marysville school district, while Steve Gehlert remained one of the assistant principals.

Elizabeth Gonda, who was the dean of students, is the other assistant principal..

The high school administration staff and organization structure did not change. Ric Stranges is principal, Rex Reeder is assistant principal and Adonis Bolden is dean of students.

Neil Gupta was hired April 23 as the director of teaching and learning.

Gupta replaced Randy Pfeiffer, who had served as director of teaching and learning through a contract with the Educational Service Center of Central Ohio since July 2011 when Madeline Partlow left the position.

Marilyn Troyer was hired in 2011 as chief of innovation, improvement and human capital. She started her job with the district in January, replacing Cara Riddel, who was the human resources director. The position's title was changed to reflect an expanded role.

Patrick Gallaway was hired as communications director in June, taking over for three part-timers who had served in the role since Jeff Warner resigned in July 2011.

Peg Betts was hired last summer to replace Ramsay as treasurer on an interim basis. Her contract through the ESC expires Dec. 31, but Gallaway said she is expected to work into January until the school board finds a full-time replacement.

Performing with distinction

The district's preliminary state report card rating of "Excellent with Distinction" was released by the Ohio Department of Education in October.

The state report cards use test scores to measure student achievement and growth and grade each Ohio public school district accordingly.

The official results for 2011-12 were put on hold while State Auditor David Yost investigated allegations of tampering with student-attendance data against several districts, including Columbus City Schools. However, the State Board of Education decided to release the current ratings to the public, though state officials did emphasize that the results would not be official until the investigation concluded.

It is all but official, though, that New Albany-Plain Local -- which was not under investigation -- has regained its "Excellent with Distinction," A-plus grade after falling to "Excellent" last year. Prior to that, the district was graded "Excellent with Distinction" in the previous three years and had the highest possible rating from the ODE for nine years in a row.

The district met all 26 state indicators and increased its performance index score from 106.6 to 107.2, according to the preliminary data. Domine said the performance index rates individual student performance and is the district's highest ever.

"While we are very proud that we have achieved this rating from the state and have seen the highest performance index at 107.2, it is our hope that the community has understood that we are committed to the highest quality of education for all of our students," Gallaway said. "While this rating is appreciated and evidence to our success, we are preparing for the future that will include increased rigor, higher expectations and a commitment to providing our students the tools they need to succeed."

The district was graded "Excellent" for the 2010-11 year because of its value-added rating, which measures the progress students made from the previous school year: Students in fifth, sixth and eighth grades did not meet the growth projections for their grade level in math and eighth-graders failed to achieve the growth projections in reading.

The 2011-12 value-added rating is now above average.

Kohler said the district was pleased with the state report card data.

Academic progress and innovation

The district also increased participation in accelerated math programs in grades five to eight this school year, while nearly doubling the number of students taking Advanced Placement classes.

At the end of the 2011-12 school year, 530 students took AP tests. It is expected at the end of the 2012-13 school year that 802 students will take AP tests.

Gallaway said district officials have focused on improving the district using measures other than the state standards. One of those measures came out of the benchmarking report completed in March.

"The benchmarking project has provided the district with a renewed focus of our goal to continue to be a leader in reinventing education," Gallaway said. "Student-focused decision-making is at the heart of everything we do."

After the benchmarking advisory board spent months identifying Minnetonka Public Schools in Minnesota as a national educational leader, the district sent a 16-member research team to Minnetonka Feb. 5 and 6.

The team did not study programs or visit classes to bring back new courses. Instead, the team asked questions about Minnetonka's 10-year process of reinventing itself and accepting change and innovation as the district's mantra.

In the March report, the research team identified the following four traits in Minnetonka Public Schools: a willingness to change; a focus on student-centered education; collaborations that involve outside partnerships, which can be formed by anyone in the district -- even students; and positive leadership at all levels, from the superintendent down to students.

District officials were especially impressed with Minnetonka's language programs, in which elementary students speak a second language in their regular classes.

The district already is trying to implement similar programs with a global focus, according to the district's vision.

At the start of the school year, Mandarin Chinese classes were added for first-, seventh- and eighth-graders. The district hired two teachers: Yan Yang, who is full-time, and a part-time teacher, Ning Deng, to oversee the classes.

Yang's goals are to teach all first-graders how to introduce themselves, say their names and ages and talk about their families in Chinese. They are learning numbers, the names of family members, animals, colors, school activities and school supplies.

The seventh- and eighth-graders are learning how to have a conversation with a native speaker, being able to introduce themselves and talk about their family.

"Our emphasis on innovation has been really exciting this year," Kohler said. "We've gotten a good example of the potential that exists in terms of creating opportunities for students.

"We're excited to also add Chinese, certainly for middle school and high school-age kids, and we are so gratified to see that we were able to offer Chinese for our first-graders this year. We've been able to stick our toe into exactly where we see the district in the next five to 10 years."

Gallaway said several other new programs also are helping change the district's focus on education.

He cited STEM Expeditions, a science, technology, engineering and math class added in the 2011-12 school year that was open to seventh- to 12th-graders and adults from the community.

Students met June 11 to 15 to study animal tracking. They practiced tracking from June 16 to 22 at Crater Lake National Park, working with geologists and scientists. They took along digital cameras to report what they learned in an electronic portfolio.

Another STEM class, this time with a robotics component, is planned in the spring.