North Olmsted City Schools Superintendent Mike Zalar presented residents with several options for coping with declining enrollment and the cost of maintaining aging buildings during his state of the schools address last week.
The district can’t afford to keep six elementary and intermediate schools open, Zalar told an audience of about 60 on Nov. 18 at Chestnut Intermediate School.
“When these schools were built during the 1950s and ’60s it was good to have a bigger number of neighborhood schools when we had 8,000 students in the district in the 1970s,” Zalar said. “But with 4,000 students in the district now, we can’t keep that many smaller schools open anymore. Other districts have had to make these decisions and we have to do so too.”
Zalar said he spoke at Chestnut to emphasize the need for a decision on whether to close, consolidate or build schools.
One option he presented was building two new schools, one to house students from pre-k through second grade and the other for grades three through five. Under that plan, the six existing buildings would be closed or used for other purposes. The district estimates the cost of two new buildings at $48 million.
Another potential plan calls for going from six elementary and intermediate buildings to four for the 2020-21 school year. That plan would include one pre-k and kindergarten building, two primary schools with grades one to three and one intermediate school with grades four and five.
The third possible plan would have three buildings for students in pre-k through second grade and two buildings for grades three through five.
“These are decisions we’re going to have to make about what we need to do,” Zalar said. “We haven’t made any decision yet, but we will have to do something soon.”
The district will consider costs, class sizes and the academic impact as weighs its decision, the superintendent said.
One audience member asked whether any state assistance could be obtained. Zalar said the state won’t help repair the existing buildings, but would probably help pay for new buildings.
Each of the six buildings needs repairs in varying degrees. A 2014 study conducted for the district estimated repair costs at $41 million.
Voters in 2014 approved an $81 million bond issue. Money from the bond issue plus $9 million from the state funded a new school for grades six through 12, a performing arts center and new athletic facilities, all of which opened last school year.
With public school districts largely relying on property taxes, even though Ohio courts have declared the current funding system unconstitutional four times, the district also must consider an operating tax levy soon, Zalar said. Voters approved a 7.8-mill operating levy in 2010.
“We’ve done a good job of stretching the dollars from that levy, but it’s not going to last forever,” Zalar said.
With the drop in enrollment and cuts in state aid, Zalar said the district has not filled every staff vacancy in recent years, going from 645 in 2010 to 577 in 2019. When asked why other buildings weren’t closed in the past two years, Zalar said district officials were focused on getting the new school open before working on other needs.
“We’re doing what we can, but we’re going to have to find what we think is best,” he said.
North Olmsted is a mature community, with 80% percent of the population not having children in the schools, he said.
“We’re aware that people have many financial considerations,” he said.
Zalar said afterward he intends to have his recommendation to the school board by the end of December or early January, when two new school board members will take office.
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