For Worthington Schools leaders, the beginning of the new year means the district is inching closer to a crucial set of decisions.
After last month's recommendation of the district's facilities-planning task force, a funding request – likely in the form of an operating levy and a bond issue – is considered the most important decision in 2018, according to Superintendent Trent Bowers and school board President Jennifer Best.
The task force, on which several community members served, was created in fall 2016 and charged with studying Worthington's increasing enrollment, older facilities and needs for the future.
The task force unveiled its findings and recommendations for the master facilities plan to the school board Dec. 11.
In a presentation that included breakdowns of each building and student demographics, the task force made three primary recommendations: working on the district's "aging buildings," balancing enrollment at the high schools and "creating capacity for all our students."
Bowers previously said many of the buildings are more than 50 years old and total enrollment is 10,201 this school year. Meanwhile, Thomas Worthington has 1,740 students and Worthington Kilbourne High School has 1,250 students; Thomas Worthington's capacity is 1,944, according to an Ohio Facilities Construction Commission report.
Bowers said the recommendations came as no surprise to him or the board. Although it's too early to have figures or details on what kind of funding mechanisms district leaders will ask voters to approve, he said, it's time to determine how to respond.
"Our big project will be taking the recommendations of the community-led task force and digging into the details," Best said. "How much is it going to cost? What kind of levy do we need?"
Previous cost estimates for most options were well above $150 million.
Although no decisions have been made, Bowers said, he expects voters will see a bond issue and a levy on the ballot in 2018.
He said that because an incremental levy – in which millage increases over time – cannot be combined with a bond issue, the pair of requests likely would be separate issues.
"I would guess that they'll be on the ballot at the same time," he said. "Whether it will be one or two issues will be determined by what kind of operating levy the district chooses."
Bowers and Best said the campaign would require a lot of community engagement.
"We're really trying to dialogue with our community about the whys," Bowers said. "Why are we looking into these issues? Why are these things that need to be done at this time?"
Bowers said a crucial part of providing those answers is in making clear the district's challenges. Worthington has added more than 1,000 students in the past five years, Bowers said, and leaders expect to gain another 150 to 200 students in 2018 alone.
"That enrollment is not going to decrease," he said. "Even if a plan is funded, we'll have several years of construction before we've gained capacity."
Bowers said he hopes to convey a "sense of urgency" to the community, though some already might feel it.
"I do believe our young families do feel the tension of capacity and they really do understand these issues -- there's an urgency there," he said. "But we have a lot of work to do to help people understand the challenges of capacity, where we are there, and to understand state funding and why state funding forces districts like Worthington to come back to the ballot every few years."
Best, who first was elected in 2001, said a funding request would be a challenge for her as much as the residents.
"All my time on the board, we've never had to ask for this much – needing the capital improvements and the operating levy at the same time," she said. "This is a lot. I'm afraid people are going to be a little– of course – apprehensive. So we have to make a really, really clear case of why we need the funding. It's going to be a big project."
District spokeswoman Vicki Gnezda previously said the board is expected to make decisions on facilities-related topics by February. The board's next meeting is Jan. 8 and the annual State of the Schools address is Feb. 7.
Day to day
Outside of the funding, district leaders are moving ahead with day-to-day changes.
Bowers said Worthington's high school curriculum includes astronomy, forensics, biomedical science and environmental science, classes that were chosen specifically from student feedback.
"We surveyed our students last year and these are all courses they said they had great interest in," he said. "We have an interest as a district to provide more science elective courses to let our students tap into."
Bowers said district officials also are auditing gifted-student programs during a "testing audit" meant to determine whether children are taking too many tests.
Although Best said the board has little to do with that project, she supports the idea of less testing.
"We're very curious, as a board, to see what they come up with because we get so many concerns from parents about too much testing," she said. "We realize there's a lot more than there should be, which is really a state-level issue. We're working with our legislators on that."