Westerville News & Public Opinion

Magnet school debate

Board wary of planned 'sunset'

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A discussion on elementary programs and facilities at last week's Westerville Board of Education meeting reignited the debate over the fate of the district's downgraded elementary magnet-school program.

The board voted to cut the elementary magnet school program -- which then included separate first- through fifth-grade programs at Robert Frost, Central College, Hanby and Emerson elementary schools -- after the failure of a levy in November 2011.

The program had since been allowed to "sunset." The four programs were consolidated in the Hanby and Emerson school buildings, and no incoming first-grade classes were introduced the last two years.

This year, the program houses only third- through fifth-grade students.

In examining the district's elementary programming and facilities, Superintendent John Kellogg, who began his term in Westerville a year ago, told the board it was his understanding that the district planned to continue that "sunset" -- to allow the students currently in the program to progress -- until the current third-grade class completes fifth grade.

While the district looked last year at an overhaul of elementary school attendance boundaries next year, that would not be necessary as the program sunsets, Kellogg said.

As the district looked at elementary redistricting last year, the district proposed continuing to use Hanby and Emerson as traditional elementary schools, but based on the number of seats available and the number of students, that wouldn't be necessary, Kellogg said.

Based on this year's fall enrollment count, the district had 6,346 elementary school students. With Emerson and Hanby at full capacity, the district would have 7,200 elementary school seats available, Kellogg said.

Over the next five years, elementary enrollment is expected to drop, at one point dipping below 6,000 students, Kellogg said.

"When you drop below 90 percent (capacity), you have to ask yourself the tough questions: Do you have an overabundance of resources?" Kellogg said to the board.

The district's administration proposed keeping elementary school boundaries as they are, creating a new "school of choice" at Hanby Elementary and looking at what other district needs, such as the need for more gifted intervention, could be met in the Emerson building.

Longfellow could be used to house a pilot of all-day kindergarten classes, Kellogg said.

The district would like to use the next year to create committees to look at those options, Kellogg said. The programs could be implemented in the 2015-2016 school year.

However, board members Rick Vilardo and Tracy Davidson -- both of whom joined the board last month after being elected in November -- questioned whether the magnet program should be so diminished.

"The way I couch it is this feels an awful lot like just playing defense," Vilardo said. "It's a concern to go from four schools of choice to one nebulous school of choice."

Davidson said the reduction of the magnet-school program did away with some of what attracted people to the school district.

"I see our school district to be a beacon, one that parents want to come to. The magnets were part of that. I think we've lost several families," Davidson said. "I'm personally not ready to go forward with this."

Kellogg said the decision does come down to a financial one: When there are clearly too many seats available at the elementary level, it doesn't make sense to staff additional buildings for elementary students.

"I don't know that it makes economic sense to distribute the resources that much over the elementary programming and not invest in other programming as well," Kellogg said. "It's about resource allocation at the end of the day."

Board President Nancy Nestor-Baker proposed the board take time to examine the administration's proposal further and plan another work session to discuss it in the coming weeks.

Nestor-Baker said she also would like to see how the elementary proposal fits into the district's overall plan for kindergarten through 12th-grade programming.

"It is clear that we have a wide disparity. It's clear that there needs to be more thinking on the part of board members about where they want to go," Nestor-Baker said. "There will be a lot of parents with a lot to say.

"We need to be listening to that."

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