Pickerington Schools administrators Feb. 27 held the first of several planned community outreach events designed to hear from constituents while officials also pitch a bond package that would fund a new junior high school and renovations to facilities.

If the district's first "Community Coffee" event is any indication, there will be a wealth of information, ideas and opinions shared among district administrators, parents and other stakeholders during the monthly programs.

The first Community Coffee was held in Porter's Coffee House, 194 W. Church St. in Pickerington.

About 20 people spilled outside a sectioned-off front room. The scheduled hourlong event spanned 90 minutes.

"The idea behind our coffees is, first of all, just have you guys have an opportunity to chat with me if there are things in the district that you want to talk about," Superintendent Chris Briggs told those attending.

"It also gives us the opportunity to get in front of as many parents as we possibly can."

Chief among the district's needs, Briggs said, is approval of a bond issue the district intends to put before voters in the November election.

The details of the bond have not been finalized, but district officials have said enrollment in the 10,600-student district is expected to rise to 12,400 within 10 years.

School officials have said since spring 2019 they need funding to address the growth.

The bond would finance construction of a new junior high school that could serve up to 1,100 students on land the district owns on Lockville Road south of Opportunity Way, known as the McGill property.

Also on that property, the district would build a new stadium for Pickerington High School Central. The current stadium sits in a floodplain and does not have an adequate number of track lanes to hold state-certified competitions.

It also would pay for the district to convert the existing Ridgeview STEM Junior High School into a building that, on one side, would serve students in grades K-4 who are attending Heritage Elementary School.

The Ridgeview building also would house fifth- and sixth-grade students and students from the district's Gateway Academy, a gifted-education program for students with superior cognitive skills.

Under the proposal, Heritage would be converted into the permanent home of the district's preschool program. It also would house the District Welcome Center, an office that processes students who are enrolling.

Additionally, the plan calls for Central to be expanded to add 24 classrooms, renovation of the school's main entry for better security and an expanded cafeteria.

Pickerington High School North would see the addition of 18 classrooms and construction of a more secure main entry.

"We are going to be on the ballot in November," Briggs said.

Voters in May 2017 rejected a 3-mill permanent-improvements levy to provide $3.6 million in annual revenue for maintenance and upgrades for buildings and athletics facilities.

The district hasn't increased local taxes since the passage of a 5.5-mill operating levy in August 2011.

Briggs said the bond issue would be much lower than levies floated by other central Ohio districts last fall.

"In November (2019), there were five, I believe, school districts that were on the ballot," he said.

"We're looking at being able to do everything within this school district -- the new building, all the renovations, everything we're looking at -- for probably 3 mills or less."

Briggs said the average home value in Pickerington is "around $300,000," and the impending bond would cost most local taxpayers less than $400 in new taxes a year.

"For what we're looking at getting, that's a pretty good story," he said.

After sharing information and making his case for additional funding, Briggs and district treasurer Ryan Jenkins asked for comments and questions from attendees.

Rather than concerns about classroom sizes, several people who identified themselves as either parents or grandparents of students expressed concerns about behavioral issues and bullying at various schools, including Diley Middle School, Ridgeview Junior High School and Central.

Ruth Keaton was among them, saying she moved to Pickerington three years ago because of the schools and she has been impressed with how the district keeps parents informed.

"One thing that I think goes really well through the school is communication," Keaton said. "We know everything about everything all the time.

"So I'm thankful that I know what's going on and what's being planned so that I can plan in my home for my daughter."

By contrast, Keaton said she thinks administrators need to put more energy and resources into both disciplinary policies and programs to help special-needs students.

"I would like to see more services available for that (special-needs) child," she said. "That child that's at a higher level of autism, I'd like to see have the same services and afforded the same services and opportunities ..."

"I'd also like to see your anti-bullying policy really have a makeover. It can't just be the (minimum) of what the state of Ohio requires because bullying is real."

Parent Jennifer Clemens also said she believes the district's communications efforts have improved by "leaps and bounds" in recent years, but she also raised concerns about bullying.

"I hate to keep harping on it, but it is something I think we really need to talk about more as a district," Clemens said. "I had to take my kid out of school last year, and it was a tough thing for a family to go through, not having the support of the school district.

"We tried to reach out and work with the counselors, the principal. I tried to get a meeting with the assistant superintendent. I tried to meet with you (Briggs), but I couldn't get anybody to help us."

Briggs and Jenkins responded by encouraging parents to continue to let teachers and building administrators know when issues occur. They said if serious threats are made or a child is assaulted, parents also should report incidents to local law-enforcement agencies.

They said the district is expanding programs to evaluate mental-health issues and provide services to students with mental illnesses.

At the same time, officials are continuing to evaluate anti-bullying policies and ways to address behavioral issues among its large and diverse student body.

"We're not naive enough to think that it doesn't happen in Pickerington," Briggs said. "It happens in 611 school districts in the state of Ohio.

"We do take it serious. Our administrators are required to follow protocol and to make sure to do a thorough investigation."

Moving forward, the district hopes to hold Community Coffees at least once a month, officials said.

The next event hasn't been scheduled, but district public-relations director Crystal Davis said it will be held "towards the end of March."

"We will publicize the coffees on social media and our website at least two weeks in advance," she said.

"We also plan to vary the times of the coffee chats to allow parents who work on different shifts the opportunity to attend a chat if they are interested.

"No registration is required. Anyone can attend. All you have to do is show up."

Officials said they hope parents and groups of parents might be interested in holding the outreach events in their homes or will provide assistance to organize them in larger venues.

"We really want to talk to parents in smaller, intimate settings and just hear what your concerns are," Davis said.

"We might be able to better serve everyone in the district."

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