Leaders of the watchdog group Excellence for South-Western Schools on March 24 identified goals they think will improve the South-Western school district.

Leaders of the watchdog group Excellence for South-Western Schools on March 24 identified goals they think will improve the South-Western school district.

About 25 people attended a meeting at the Prairie Township fire station, including SWCS superintendent Bill Wise, treasurer Hugh Garside and school board members Randy Reisling and Jo Ellen Myers.

Bob Ruth, an ESWS leader and a retired newspaper reporter, said first among the group's goals is that the district's administration "never again use cancellation of after-school sports and extracurricular activities as a levy campaign threat."

Other goals involve no property tax increases for five years, a two-year freeze on base-pay and step increases for administrators and teachers, reduction of health care benefits, increased communication and a review of a change in the grading system that took effect in August.

Ruth said in weeks leading up the March 24 meeting he wanted to have a "back-and-forth discussion" with the community, something he had said Wise had never done.

In a statement released after the meeting, Ruth said he was "encouraged by the turnout and the back-and-forth discussion."

He estimated about 12 people spoke during the meeting.

"We attempted to allow anyone who had an opinion to speak for as long as they wanted," Ruth said. "Bill Wise challenged our conclusions about the new grading system. We had a very useful back-and-forth debate with him on this issue."

He added having a back-and-forth discussion was one of ESWS' "major goals."

The discussion March 24 focused mainly on grading system changes that took effect at the start of the 2009-10 school year.

The policy affected only high school student scores at the end of each six-week grading period, district officials have said.

They said the policy has no effect on the way that teachers grade individual students; it merely changed the way they input final grades into the district's grading computer system.

Ruth and other ESWS members said the district communicated poorly when describing the changes to parents and staffers. Ruth also said the new system encourages truancy and lowers academic standards. He said his claims are based on minutes from voluntary meetings that took place earlier this year with high school teachers and district administrators.

The goal of the meetings was to gain teacher input on the new grading policy, district administrators have said.

Ruth said the district should have communicated better the nature of the change to teachers and parents.

District officials have admitted they made a mistake with communication.

"I think this is an example of the officials of this district living in a sort of bubble," Ruth said during the March 24 meeting.

Rick Redfern, a member of the pro-levy campaign committee Citizens for South-Western City Schools, responded to Ruth's assessment of the grading change.

He said the new system, which is based on a 4.0 scale, is similar to those used in colleges across the nation. The focus group meetings with teachers allowed district administrators to identify areas with the change that needed improvement, he said.

"We get to watch them fumble through the kinks," Redfern said. "Maybe you're right, Bob. I don't know. I think there are easier ways to inflate things."

Wise said the new grading policy changed only the way high school teachers input grades into the district's computer system.

"I think what we're all after is we want students' grades to be reflective of the learning," he said. "It wasn't about inflating grades."

The old system also had weaknesses that students could take advantage of, Wise added.

Lou Houston, who worked on the pro-levy campaign last year, asked why Cindy Legue, ESWS' coordinator, spends her time criticizing South-Western schools rather than concerning herself with her own children and the private schools they attend.

"I'm very involved in my kids' schools," Legue replied. "I don't know what that has to do with this discussion."

She added Houston's question raised an "irrelevant topic."

Houston said she worked with the pro-levy campaign committee because she wanted to improve the "reputation of this community."

She said district administrators have been treated unfairly.

"If I had to put up with the constant criticism and nit-picking, I would be depressed horribly, personally," Houston said. "I know your property taxes are high. I wish you would take your problems to the Ohio General Assembly."

She added financial problems are not exclusive to South-Western schools.

"I get depressed whenever I read The Grove City Record," Houston added. "I don't get depressed when I read the Southwest Messenger. I guess I'll have to stop reading The Grove City Record."

Sandi Davis, who ran unsuccessfully for school board last year, said she recognized the school district has problems.

But "some credit needs to be given where credit is due," she said.

She said communication has been a problem with the school district, yet she hopes "each side is learning."

She said she thinks more community members should attend school district meetings to "incrementally make changes" and improve communication between residents and school district staff.

"We need to begin that healing process," Davis added.

Smythe Van Sickle said it was a "major plus" that school officials even attended the ESWS meeting.

"I think we need to remember it's easy to criticize the administration," he said. "We need to really be trying to extend some hands out to the (school) board."

After the meeting, Wise said the meeting was a "great opportunity to listen and hear a variety of perspectives."

And "as I listen I'm always trying to find better ways that we can serve our students and community," Wise said.