Lots of changes in Warren district

VINCENT – The Warren Local school district will look very different next year with a new superintendent, new high school and elementary administrators and the return of high school busing.

During its regular meeting Monday, the Warren board of education voted 4-0, with Vice President Debbie West absent, to restore high school busing for the upcoming school year. The board also accepted the resignations of Superintendent Tom Gibbs, Warren High School Principal Dan Leffingwell, high school Assistant Principal Dave Hanning, Barlow-Vincent Elementary Principal Stephanie Starcher and Barlow-Vincent Assistant Principal Rebecca Johnson.

“We had, and have, good people,” board President Sidney Brackenridge said. “Other boards took an opportunity to come here and make an offer to ours.”

Starcher was approved last week as superintendent of the Fort Frye Local school district, where Gibbs has served in addition to his duties at Warren for the last year. During that meeting, the Fort Frye board also approved Gibbs’ resignation to take a job as an associate superintendent with Athens City Schools.

According to the board, Leffingwell has been selected as superintendent of the Noble Local school district, replacing retiring Superintendent Dan Doyle. Hanning will become principal of Athens High School, while Johnson takes over the principal’s reins at Caldwell Elementary. All of the new jobs are effective as of Aug. 1.

Meanwhile, the board voted to end the two-year absence of high school busing, implemented after the fourth failure of a bond issue to build new schools. A previous attempt to resume the service before this year was voted down 3-2, with board members Bob Allen and John Nichols supporting it. In September, all five board members voted to restore the service in January if a new bond issue passed, but that measure failed at the polls.

The likelihood of increased funding from the state and the impact of the lack of busing on some students appeared to sway Brackenridge to vote for the reinstatement.

“I believe that there are kids out there that are not getting to school and need to, and it’s hurting them,” Brackenridge said, noting employees of the high school guidance office had mentioned problems students and families had been having.

In presenting an updated five-year financial forecast for board approval, Treasurer Melcie Wells noted the latest version of the Ohio budget bill shows Warren receiving 6 percent increases in state funding each of the next two years, compared to flat funding under Gov. John Kasich’s original proposal. While she said it’s still a risk to count on that money, she feels much more comfortable about it after talking with legislators and other officials.

“There is no guarantee that will happen. (But) it looks good,” Gibbs said.

Wells said bringing back busing will cost at least $450,000, and that doesn’t include the eventual purchases of new buses. That’s tentatively slated for fiscal year 2015 but could come sooner, she said.

A man at the meeting who did not give his name asked how it made financial sense to bring back busing. He noted the district will be spending more on a superintendent because it would no longer be sharing the position with Fort Frye.

“You add costs to one line item area, something’s got to drop,” Brackenridge said. “Nine times out of 10, it’s the buildings.”

That’s where the money saved by cutting busing two years ago went, Nichols said. Now that some improvements have been made, the board feels it’s appropriate to reduce spending there to bring back busing, he said.

But Nichols, an outspoken opponent of the elimination of busing when he ran for the board in 2011, pointed out to the more than 20 community members and district employees in the audience Monday that the resolution only makes reference to the upcoming school year.

“It’d be great if that said forever. There’s a reason it doesn’t,” he said.

Uncertainty over funding prevents the board from guaranteeing the practice will continue in the future, Nichols said, but it’s the right thing to do now.

The district saved more money than anticipated by eliminating busing due to the bridge formula put in place that based state funding of schools on previous years’ amounts while a new method was being developed. But a lot of that was eaten away by declining enrollment, at least some of which was attributed to students leaving the district because of a lack of busing.

Gibbs suggested the board include language in the resolution saying busing would be restored contingent on being able to employ enough qualified drivers. Hiring everyone on the substitute driver list would still leave the district four drivers short of the number needed for full restoration, he said.

But Allen and Nichols said the district would make do with the number it had, even if that meant having parents drop students off at designated pickup points.

Before the vote, Barlow Township resident Ray Smith urged the board to reinstate the service not only to benefit families and students, but to make the superintendent’s job more attractive.

“A rational superintendent prospect may look at this situation and say, ‘I would be insane to take this job,'” Smith said, citing the lack of busing, multiple bond issue failures and the closing of two elementary schools in 2008. “You can start by saying, ‘You know what, we’re going to give more opportunities for our kids, and let the past be the past.'”

Brackenridge read a statement on behalf of the board thanking the departing administrators for their service and acknowledging the retirements of four other long-time employees. He said the district “will follow a hiring process that in the past brought strong leaders to the district.”

The first step in that process, Brackenridge said, will be hiring a new superintendent. At a May 8 special meeting, the board approved an interview and hiring schedule in anticipation of Gibbs’ resignation. The job was posted the next day, and candidates have until May 28 to apply. The board will meet at 7:30 p.m. May 30 to review the applicants in closed, executive session, before narrowing the field for interviews on June 3.

Members of the public can submit questions and attend a forum at 9 a.m. June 8 at the high school to hear the candidates answer them. The board plans to vote on hiring a superintendent the following Monday.

The administrative jobs have also been posted, and applications will start to be reviewed this week, according to Brackenridge’s statement. Current administrators will work with the board and union leadership to schedule interviews and put together an administrative team for the upcoming year.

Gibbs said he, Leffingwell and Starcher will continue to work to ensure that quality candidates are selected.

“The three of us have worked together in the district for over a decade and we want to leave the district in a good position,” he said.

Some district employees, and board member Bob Crum, indicated at the special meeting that one reason so many administrators were leaving was because of a perceived lack of support by the board. Brackenridge said he “doesn’t think there’s any problem with it.”

Except for Gibbs, none of the departing administrators were in attendance Monday.