As the state's evaluations and benchmarks for districts and individual students get tougher, the Olentangy Local School District has a simple response: Bring it on.
The 2013-14 school year is bookended by two major changes for Olentangy and the state's other districts.
The state released its first evaluations of districts using a new letter-grade system at the start of the school year. By the end of the school year, third-graders must pass a tougher reading achievement test or risk being held back.
Superintendent Wade Lucas said district officials "totally agree with" more-rigorous standards for Ohio's public schools, while noting the transition to meet the new standards may not always be easy.
The district earned six A's and three B's on its report card for the 2012-13 school year in its first evaluation under the new system. Previously, districts achieved ratings such as "continuous improvement," "effective" and "excellent with distinction."
"The tests are getting tougher and the attainment of an A is getting tougher," Lucas said. "That's going to create frustration for some."
The district fell just short of an A grade in a category that measures the progress of gifted students; performance index, which measures the district's scores on graduation and achievement tests; and a category that measures the performance of minority populations within the district.
Lucas said the district is working toward all A's when the report card evaluating the current school year is released.
"That's where the expectation has to be," Lucas said. "We knew we were going to be short in a couple of areas (for 2012-13). We think it's very attainable for all A's."
For some categories, such as performance index, that's a small but meaningful step. Olentangy earned a 107.5 out of a possible 120 in performance index -- just 0.3 points below an A.
The 2013-14 school year marks the first time a state mandate called the Third-Grade Reading Guarantee will be in effect. The measure, created by the state legislature, will hold back third-graders if they do not pass a reading achievement test.
About 10 percent of the district's third-graders -- not counting students who are exempt because of a disability or limited proficiency in English -- failed to reach that goal in October. They have another chance to pass the test in April.
Lucas said the district knows which students are falling short and will continue working closely with them until the spring test. He said he expects the children who missed the mark on the previous test will improve their scores because Olentangy has a strong reading intervention program, which was in place before the mandate was announced.
"I'm extremely confident," he said. "This is what we do, and this is what we've been doing."
Lucas said he approves of the guarantee, which some educators have called an unfunded mandate placed on school districts. He said the goal of the mandate outweighed any concerns over funding.
"We owe every child who walks through (the doors) the resources and the time needed to make sure they're reading at a third-grade level," he said.
Lucas said he will push for action on another financial issue in 2014. He and other district officials have been strong proponents of school-funding reform in Ohio.
Lucas said the district annually heeds the state's call to perform well while spending conservatively but sees no financial reward. Instead, he said, the taxpayers in the Olentangy district subsidize other school districts.
"For every dollar (Olentangy residents) send to the state in state income taxes, we get about four cents back," he said.
Lucas said he will continue to work with politicians from the area to advance the cause of funding reform in 2014.
A budget proposed by Ohio Gov. John Kasich for 2014-15 that would have provided the district with an additional $15 million in state funding in the first year and an additional $5 million in the second year was rejected by the legislature.
Lucas said by focusing on income-tax cuts while cutting aid to school districts, legislators have simply shifted the tax burden to property owners.
"If we get enough funding to stay off the ballot for a decade, that's a tax cut," he said.
District officials hope to stay off the ballot until after the 2015-16 school year, and Lucas said a change in state funding levels could put off the need for a new levy longer. The district last passed a levy in May 2011.
While state funding did not increase in recent years, the district continued to grow.
Lucas said the district is adding 600 to 700 students per year, down from the late 1990s and early 2000s when it was gaining more than 1,000 students per year.
With the decrease in population growth, the district is taking a conservative approach toward planning for new buildings.
Lucas said officials have discussed adding a 16th elementary school building, but it will not be built in the next five school years.
"We've slowed the building down," he said. "We haven't opened any buildings in two years, and there isn't one in the (five-year) forecast," he said.
Lucas said the continued growth of the district, although challenging, reflects well on the school system. He called Olentangy a "destination district."
"I think that's a blessing and a testament to the fact we have a very good school district," he said.