Board Members Briefed on District Finances, Initiatives during Day-Long Retreat

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Westerville City School District (WCSD) Board of Education members, along with incoming member Gerrie Cotter, met on Monday, December 14, in a day-long retreat at the district Early Learning Center, during which time members of the district leadership team presented updates on various academic and operational initiatives.

Dr. John Kellogg, superintendent, framed the purpose of the retreat by asking Board members, “Where do we want to be 24 months from now?”  He noted that district officials continue their work to achieve community-driven goals, and that their efforts soon will be monitored through the use of a balanced scorecard being developed.  The scorecard is data-driven, aligns with the district’s Strategic Plan and identifies key “markers” to measure progress.

Emergency Levy Renewal

Treasurer Bart Griffith, along with Bricker & Eckler Attorney Becky Princehorn, updated Board members on the district’s five-year emergency levy that expires December 31, 2017.  If the levy is not renewed or is allowed to expire, the district will lose $16.7 million of annual revenue.

Princehorn noted that the State of Ohio recently eliminated property tax rollbacks on new levies and also implemented a means test to determine homestead exemption qualification.  Renewing the emergency levy would retain the property tax rollback provision for residents on this issue.  The Board could consider a request to renew the levy at the same millage, or they could consider requesting a renewal with an increase in millage.  However, any millage increase would not be subject to the property tax rollback.

Another option Princehorn shared is a “substitute levy,” which keeps the property tax rollback in place for homeowners but also allows the district to gain additional revenue on any new construction within its boundaries.  She said a substitute levy is good for districts with undeveloped land like Westerville, and that this approach has been very well received around the state.

Princehorn said pursuing a substitute levy is worthy of the Board’s consideration because procedurally, it is just like a renewal and they are very well received by ratings agencies.  A substitute levy can be for a period of time up to 10 years, or it can be made permanent.  With a substitute levy, property owners’ existing taxes could still decrease by virtue of inflation and growth in the area because the issue is for a set millage amount, not a fixed dollar amount.

When asked which option would delay the need for a new levy the longest, Princehorn said a substitute levy would help stretch the time between levies because it allows the district to capture additional revenue from new growth, as well as when tax abatements expire.

“A substitute levy is a good option for districts like Westerville that have a blend of commercial, industrial and residential construction,” Princehorn said.  “Westerville is probably positioned better than any other district I’ve worked with to use the substitute levy and forestall the need for anything new.”

The presentation to the Board was informational only and no action was taken.  District officials will be convening a small committee to review emergency levy renewal options and make a recommendation to the full Board.  The committee is anticipated to include two Board liaisons and community representatives who are of differing opinions and well-versed in levies and school finance.  At least one member of the committee will be a representative of the district’s Audit Committee.

Enrollment & Facility Master Plan

Executive Director of Facilities & Operations Jeff LeRose reported to Board members that the district’s current enrollment of 14,889 students is the second-highest ever, exceeded only by the 2011-12 enrollment of 15,025.  Enrollment is fairly flat and projected to slightly decrease over the next several years.  An enrollment bubble continues to make its way through secondary grades.  This year is highest enrollment for middle schools and the bubble is projected to move through high school throughout the next four years.

LeRose said building capacities, based on 25 students per room, are manageable.  Hanby is 10 students over capacity, Mark Twain is nine students over, Blendon Middle is 46 students over, Heritage Middle is seven students over, and Walnut Springs Middle is 16 students over.  No high schools are over capacity.

Regarding student demographics, LeRose reported that the district’s diversity has increased an average of 1.4 percent per year over past six years and approximately 36 percent of students participate in the federal Free & Reduced Price Lunch Program.  Over the past 15 years WCSD has experienced an average 1.9 percent annual growth in the number of students participating in the federal Free & Reduced Price Lunch Program.  WCSD has 1,741 special needs students, which is 11.9 percent of the total enrollment and reflects a slight decrease over past few years.  The district has 1,280 Limited English Proficient students, which is 8.6 percent of the total student population.

LeRose reported that all projects identified in the previous five-year Facilities Master Plan had been accomplished, and that some additional work was able to be completed due to sound fiscal and project management.  The district’s next Facilities Master Plan primarily includes general maintenance and repair work.

The district continues to have challenges with maintaining aging schools.  Criteria set by the Ohio School Facilities Commission (now called the Ohio Facilities Construction Commission) identify the district’s aging schools as Central College, Emerson, Hanby, Hawthorne, Longfellow, Pointview, Robert Frost, and Whittier elementary schools; Walnut Springs Middle School; and Westerville South High School.

Board members said that while the district often uses state construction program metrics as a benchmark, they expressed caution about the overall state program.  The program does not consider a school’s historical/architectural value to a community; there are many strings attached to the program, such as when a district would become eligible for funding; and in general it is not a good fit for WCSD because the community has invested in maintaining its facilities.

The Ohio School Facilities Commission had identified $109.5 million of need in 2001, some of which had been addressed over the years through bond issue and capital improvement funds.  However, plumbing, electrical, loose furnishings and general finishes remain key areas of need and will be the focus of future projects.

LeRose also reviewed some of the more significant projects recently completed or presently underway, such as the Walnut Springs Middle School Center for Inspiration, the Pointview Elementary School remodel/expansion, and the reopening of Longfellow Elementary School as an All-Day Kindergarten site.  “We’ve done some amazing things with the dollars we’ve had to work with,” he said.

Staffing & Class Size

Executive Director of Human Resources Lori Lofton reviewed the impact of recent retirements and reported that the district still maintains a solid distribution of experience among its teachers. Half of all new teachers hired this school year have at least a Master’s Degree, while districtwide 553 teachers have 10 or fewer years of experience and 482 have 11 or more years of experience. Lofton said retirement projections are running lower than previous years so there are no areas of concern.

Steve Mazzi, Human Resources director for licensed staff, informed the Board about district officials’ efforts to monitor class size and address concerns when they arise.  The district has 6,381 elementary students with an average class size of 22.6 students.  The Board’s contract with the Westerville Education Association allows class sizes to exceed 25 student, as long as there is an administrative response.  Class sizes at middle and high schools are impacted by class offerings but can exceed a 25:1 class-size ratio by 20 percent.

At the middle school level, classes are defined by “sections” available at each building.  District officials monitor the class size of those sections, as well as trends, to determine when class size should be addressed.  Sections, which can range from fewer than 18 students to more than 27 students, are a reflection of how principals choose to use the staff members allocated to them. For example, one factor that could influence their decision is content complexity.

At the high school level, school officials determine class sections and sizes by examining student needs from quarter to quarter and semester to semester.  Classes also are impacted by variables unique to high schools such as International Baccalaureate opportunities, Advanced Placement options, honors classes, graduation requirements, college-career readiness courses, and lab participation.

Mazzi said there are no sections at any high school that are over 30 students.  Kellogg added that while high-demand classes such as art are often filled with 30 students, there are still students who can’t take the class because the district is unable to provide the staff and space needed to meet the demand.

All-Day Kindergarten

Executive Director of Elementary Academic Affairs Barbara Wallace reported that the district’s first year of offering an optional All-Day Kindergarten (ADK) Program is going very well.  There are 10 ADK classrooms around the district serving 248 students.  As openings become available for various reasons, such as a family moving out of district, other families who expressed an interest in the program are given an opportunity to participate.

Wallace said an ADK committee recently examined the potential for expanding the program.  As part of its research, the committee conducted a survey of families with a child enrolled in either ADK or Half-Day Kindergarten.  The committee received 418 responses.  Families who kept their child enrolled in the half-day program identified not having ADK at their home school and the cost of the program as the two biggest factors as to why they did not apply for ADK.  Of the families with a child in ADK, 91 percent said their expectations are being met by the program.  According to Wallace, salary and benefits costs for the ADK Program are $532,333 but much of that cost is expected to be offset by revenue from tuition.

Wallace said the ADK committee is recommending the opening of eight additional ADK classrooms for the 2016-17 school year.  Elementary schools recommended for one ADK classroom include Fouse, Huber Ridge, Mark Twain, McVay, and Wilder.  Alcott already has one ADK classroom and the committee is recommending the addition of a second classroom.  The committee also is recommending the opening of two ADK classrooms at Pointview Elementary.  The proposed ADK expansion would require the employment of six teachers and would provide at least one ADK classroom at every traditional elementary school in the district.  With expansion, the program would be able to serve 444 students.

The ADK committee also recommended the use of a sliding tuition structure based upon Federal Poverty Level guidelines.  District officials will be sharing proposed revisions to the tuition scale in the near future. Board consensus is that there is interest in moving forward with expansion, though some details still need to be finalized.  Wallace said the district will hold its Kindergarten 101 program in February 2016 and have ADK applications available then.  The ADK lottery and parent notification would be held in April 2016.

College & Career Readiness

Executive Director of Secondary Academic Affairs Scott Reeves informed Board members that Career Technical Education coursework is being provided to WCSD students through the Columbus Downtown High School, at the Delaware Area Career Center, and in-house at each of the district’s three high schools.  Reeves said the number of students participating in Career Technical Education jumped from 218 during the 2013-14 school year to 527 in the 2015-16 school year.  College Credit Plus participation has jumped from 71 students during the 2013-14 school year to 137 in the 2015-16 school year.

Reeves said parents would prefer that students not leave their WCSD high school campus for these opportunities, so district officials have been working diligently to build Career Technical Education and College Credit Plus offerings at each high school.  Strategies have been put into place to help and encourage more students to access this type of coursework.

Students also have been gaining college-level credits through Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and Project Lead the Way coursework.  Reeves said the district has underrepresented student populations taking advantage of these opportunities and will be exploring a grant to improve/increase these figures.  District officials are using data to guide their improvement efforts and continue to work with neighboring colleges and universities to strengthen the program.

Reeves said student career exploration actually begins to take shape in sixth grade and the district has provided various resources and support to help them throughout the process.

“This is the second year that every sixth grader has interacted with career inventory tools to explore things that interest them,” Reeves explained.  “They can then look at career industries that align to their interests, and then our counselors suggest coursework that they could and should be taking.”

State Assessment Data

Kellogg closed the retreat by updating the Board on state test performance data.  District results exceeded state averages and met state standards in all but one exam, which was American Government.  Kellogg surmised that students scored lower on the exam because it was not required for graduation and did not carry similar repercussions as would poor performance on other exams.

“Regardless, it’s unacceptable for Westerville not to exceed the state average on this exam,” Kellogg said.  “We have a strong social studies curriculum, so we’ll work with our students and staff to improve our future performance on this measure.”

Kellogg told Board members that in general, test results show that the district’s curriculum and instructional program are on the right track and are aligned with new state standards.

“Variances we’re seeing in school performances are consistent with variances in student populations and needs,” Kellogg explained.  “We’re still working on data verification, but we expect our scores will only go up.”

Regarding the data verification process, Kellogg shared one issue that district officials discovered as a result of a telephone conversation with a parent who thought their student’s score on one particular exam seemed quite low.

“Recall that two tests were administered for each student during two testing windows last spring,” Kellogg said.  “What we’re finding in some instances is that the test vendor has not connected the student’s two exam results, which can artificially deflate the scores on their reports.”

Kellogg said the state is leaving it up to the districts to identify and resolve these issues.  He plans to discuss this matter with other local superintendents and possibly engage policymakers to build their aware of the various issues this situation is creating.