Leaders of Reynoldsburg City Schools don't have to gaze into a crystal ball to see the challenges facing the district in 2014.
A superintendent search and upcoming negotiations with teachers top the list of district resolutions, but plans to keep students on a fast track to college may get a big boost as the new year begins.
Superintendent Steve Dackin said a state education grant will create exciting new opportunities for the district's high school students.
"Our biggest project in 2014 will be the implementation of the Pathways to Prosperity project, in conjunction with our partners," Dackin said. "This is the project funded by the $14.4 million Ohio Straight A grant that we received. This is incredibly exciting work."
The district was the lead applicant among a consortium of 13 central Ohio districts that received the $14.4 million grant from the new Ohio Department of Education Straight A Fund.
Besides Reynoldsburg, the consortium includes Canal Winchester, Columbus, Gahanna-Jefferson, Grandview Heights, Hilliard, Licking Heights, New Albany-Plain Local, Olentangy, South-Western, Upper Arlington, Westerville and Whitehall.
The consortium is working with Columbus State Community College, Battelle for Kids and the Education Service Center of Central Ohio to create more opportunities for students to earn college credit, receive job certification and get work experience while still in high school.
"We will plan and launch multiple programs throughout central Ohio that will allow students to earn a combination of college credit and career certifications aligned to growing industries such as advanced manufacturing, health care and information technology," Dackin said. "We have our work cut out for us, but the project is due to be completed this summer, with programs of study available to students in the fall."
More than 400 Reynoldsburg high school students were enrolled in college classes last year through a district partnership with Columbus State, which opened the Columbus State Reynoldsburg Regional Learning Center within BELL Academy in January 2013.
"The purpose (of Pathways to Prosperity) is to broaden students' opportunities after they graduate by allowing them to walk away with more than just a high school diploma," Dackin said. "They will be employable on the spot and well on their way to two-year or four-year degrees.
"This is one of the key strategies for meeting the goal of the Central Ohio Compact -- to have 60 percent of our working-age adults with a college degree or career certificate by 2025," he said.
Reynoldsburg was the first K-12 school district to sign the Central Ohio Compact in September 2012. The compact is a regional strategy that grew from the Lumina Foundation educational goals and the Columbus 2020 initiative.
Dackin will retire at the end of July, after six years as superintendent.
"My aim is to leave the district in the best possible shape for the new superintendent," he said. "Generally, we have far more opportunities for children to learn at their own pace and to connect their learning to their passions than we've ever had. And our financial outlook is as strong as it has been in a decade.
"I believe the new superintendent will have a tremendous opportunity to lead in new, better directions that will continue our academic trajectory because there won't be immediate distractions such as ballot issues or failing programs," he said. "That said, I aim to prepare the district for the transition and to assist, if I can, in helping the new superintendent get started."
School board President Andy Swope said the district must find a forward-thinking leader.
"Finding a candidate who shares the same visionary qualities we have enjoyed in our district during his (Dackin's) tenure as superintendent may prove to be a hard order to fill," Swope said.
He credits Dackin for the district's career-based high school academies and an increased focus on the STEM disciplines, which has attracted state and national attention. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Baldwin Road Junior High School and Herbert Mills Elementary School both opened as new Reynoldsburg STEM schools last year, joining Summit Road STEM Elementary School, eSTEM Academy and HS 2 Academy.
Board member Elaine Tornero said it won't be easy to fill Dackin's shoes.
"I looked at our district goals at the last school board meeting, which are basically high academic achievement and safe schools in a fiscally sound school district," she said. "Finding the person who can achieve this, who has the knowledge and understanding of education and business and finance, and who can fill some pretty big shoes, will not be an easy task."
"We must find someone that has vision and an innovative spirit. Someone that will continue to assist in attracting the best teachers, creates and preserves partnerships, works with government officials, while always watching the bottom line," said board member Loretta King.
"Education is in a new place, requirements for our kids are high and the next superintendent for Reynoldsburg City Schools will need to continue to move us forward," she said.
Replacing Dackin won't be the only tough task.
"Second and equally as important to the district are the upcoming negotiations with the teacher and support staff unions," Swope said. "It is crucial we put together a fair package that continues to attract and retain quality employees while keeping within the district's budget."
The current teachers' contract was approved in October 2011. Teachers agreed to pay higher health insurance premiums but received retroactive 2 percent raises or step increases the first year of the contract. The second year brought a salary increase of 1 percent, with no salary increase scheduled for the third year. That contract expires July 31.
Teachers and administrators did receive bonus checks last year, however. Board members agreed in June to give bonuses amounting to 1 percent of salaries to certified staff members, teachers, guidance counselors and nurses.
Administrators, school psychologists and administrative support staff members also received performance awards in November that amounted to an across-the-board raise of 2.3 percent.
Other issues will be two of the state's latest unfunded mandates -- the Third Grade Reading Guarantee and a new system for evaluating teachers.
"I am happy to say that we have been proactive with both, but there are sure to be bumps in the road," Tornero said.
Ohio's Third Grade Reading Guarantee requires school districts to retain students if they don't pass state reading achievement tests.
All districts also are expected to adopt a new system that evaluates teachers by measuring students' academic progress.
King credits Dackin with having the "foresight" to begin addressing the mandates.
"The new requirements will stretch our students and our staff to achieve in all areas as well as those in which we are most in need of help, such as challenging our gifted students," she said.