The school year is new, but the mission remains the same for the Olentangy Local School District.

Much of the work during the 2018-19 school year will focus on maximizing resources and planning for growth that doesn't seem to be slowing down.

"Our two biggest challenges always come back to managing enrollment growth and advocating for additional state funding," Superintendent Mark Raiff said.

District leaders will spend much of this year "working with legislators to get the funding we deserve," he said.

The Ohio General Assembly has capped funding for districts such as Olentangy, resulting in an estimated loss to the district of more than $40 million this fiscal year, Raiff said.

That money would mean, on average, about $1,600 less in property taxes per household, he said.

The average homeowner pays about $5,900 annually in school taxes, according to district figures.

"If we had that much money, that'd be like 13 less mills that our taxpayers would have to pay," Raiff said. "We spend a little over $10,000 per pupil, so whatever we get from the state will only reduce (the amount) or spread out our next levy. We'll always have some need to be in front of our voters."

Currently the seventh-largest district in Ohio, Olentangy schools welcomed 21,064 K-12 students Aug. 15, hundreds of them new to the district.

Nearly 500 more were enrolled in its preschool program.

"I see us being the fourth-largest district in the state behind Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati," Raiff said. "I want it to feel small. When I got here in 2003, people would have their kids, get them through school and leave. Now they're staying -- they understand the value of our district."

Olentangy expects to be educating more than 24,000 students by the 2027-28 school year. Enrollment in its preschool program and at its 15 elementary schools continues to climb.

Ground will be broken in November on expansion projects at three elementary schools: Alum Creek, 2515 Parklawn Drive, and Arrowhead, 2385 Hollenback Road, both in Lewis Center; and Wyandot Run, 2800 Carriage Road in Powell, aimed at easing crowding.

A total of 18 classrooms -- six at each building -- will be added to help expand capacity for the 2019-20 school year.

The expansions are expected to cost about $10.5 million and are funded from about $14.9 million left from a 2011 bond issue. That issue included funding for an elementary school that was never built.

"The 18 classrooms will get us through and help us start targeting" the need for the next bond or levy campaign, Raiff said.

In the next five years, Raiff expects the district to build and open at least one more elementary school. It also will need to examine its middle school capacity, he said.

Most of Olentangy's five middle schools hold between 900 and 1,100 students, he said.

"As a community, we need to decide how big we want our middle schools to be," Raiff said.

As it adds students and buildings, the district expects to fill a newly created position -- director of safety, security and preparedness -- in the fall.

"I'm confident in the safety and security of our schools. We've been managing that internally. There are so many issues across the board, we felt it was time," Raiff said. "Our top priority is always facilitating maximum learning for every student. You can't do that unless you're providing a safe and caring environment."

Helping students who struggle from what Raiff calls "nonacademic barriers to learning" also will continue to be a priority.

"We are looking at ways to provide more mental health counseling and looking at potential partnerships with local agencies," he said. "I always want the kids to feel like their problem is my biggest problem. My charge to our staff is to live the mission of the district and care for them as if they're your own.

"Our teachers are excellent and our parents are incredibly supportive," he said. "Our efforts across the board related to inclusion and diversity, it all comes full circle to the type of school culture we're creating and nurturing our children in.

"The schools are the community; regardless of where you live, we're all part of Olentangy Local Schools."

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