New Frontier board members get some advice

NEW MATAMORAS – There won’t be much of a honeymoon period for the three incoming members of the Frontier Local Board of Education.

At Monday’s board meeting, the last regular one scheduled in 2013, the three departing members wished their successors luck, with outgoing board member Bryan Oliver adding good-naturedly, “You’re going to need it.”

With the failure of a proposed property tax levy in November, declining enrollment and state and federal funds that have declined in recent years, Frontier is facing a financial crisis that has Superintendent Bruce Kidder recommending the district go from three elementary schools to one.

“I know the job they’re facing won’t be an easy one,” said board member Jeff Knowlton, who, like Oliver, decided not to run for re-election after serving one term.

Two-term board member Jeff Lauer said the new board cannot wait to make a decision on the future makeup of the district, something that has been on hold for more than two years.

“It’s drug out long enough,” he said.

Prior to the 2011-12 school year, Lawrence Elementary – the district’s oldest building with an enrollment of just 40 students and the lowest operating costs – appeared slated for closure, but no formal vote was ever taken and supporters rallied to keep it open. The district is projected to be in deficit spending this year and next, depleting its cash reserves to less than $300,000 by the end of the 2014-15 year, even with a slight increase in state funding.

Lauer said his time on the board has been eight years of controversy – from problems with the construction of the new Newport and New Matamoras elementaries and renovated Frontier High School to the moving of middle school students to the high school. Divisions have been evident among some from different communities in the district as the fate of Lawrence has been debated.

“This district has to come together as a whole, or it’s never going to be any better than it is now,” Lauer said.

He said the new board members should also ask the Washington County commissioners why they haven’t done more to encourage economic development in the area, and continue to lobby for the federal government to pay its share since the property tax-exempt Wayne National Forest covers so much of the district.

Kidder said he’d like direction from the board on how to proceed by March.

“If it involves reducing staff, they need as much time as they can to find new positions,” he said.

In addition to current board President Justin Hoff and Vice President Ricky Kroll, the new board will consist of Todd Collins of Newport and Gale Depuy II and Kurt Bohlen, both of Lawrence Township.

“I knew that going in,” Bohlen said of the hard choices facing the board.

Depuy has been a vocal supporter of Lawrence Elementary, but he said Monday that he has to learn more before he decides how he thinks the district should proceed.

“Have to try to look at everything and have to try to figure out what would be the best to shoot for,” he said.

In other business, the current board unanimously approved new contracts with the district’s teacher and staff unions, retroactive to July 1 and running through June 30, 2014.

Various issues, including the outcome of the November levy, led to the unions operating without new contracts for the first half of the year, Kidder said.

Salaries and insurance will remain the same, except for an additional 10 cents an hour for drivers of after-school bus trips. That pay increase will only apply going forward and is not retroactive, Kidder said.

The major difference in the teachers’ contract is the required Ohio Teacher Evaluation System, which bases 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation on student performance on tests and requires administrators to spend more time observing teachers in the classroom and meeting with them.

“Evaluation was a page-and-a-half (of the contract), and now it’s like 27 pages,” Kidder said.