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Marietta City Schools district seeks consolidation feedback, offers answers

About 100 people attended a public meeting Monday night at Marietta High School to get information and offer their views on the school district proposal to consolidate classes and resources by reducing its building space. (Photo by Michael Kelly)

Marietta City Schools administrators and the public had a two-hour interchange Monday night as part of the school district’s continuing effort to gauge residents’ sentiments on the prospect of closing some of the district’s six campuses.

The evening began with a presentation outlining the six options the district has sketched out in the months since its building project levy was defeated. With a continuing operating deficit driven in part by the cost of running of six aging buildings, the district is looking for ways to consolidate its operations by closing at least one building and possibly more.

The window on a special financing arrangement with the state is closing – the district can put the levy proposal on the ballot in November for another try at passing the $85 million building project, but the board of education has directed administrators to come up with an interim plan in case the levy is rejected again by voters.

Monday night’s informational session, attended by about 100 people in the Marietta High School auditorium, began with a recap of the district’s proposal options by Superintendent Will Hampton.

“Our current reality is that the bond issue failed. We still have a chance in November, but in the mean time our class sizes are unbalanced, we have declining enrollment, we are poorly funded – we’re in the bottom 10 percent of funding per student we receive from the state – but we do a great job with very little resources,” Hampton said.

Marietta City Schools Superintendent Will Hampton answers a question during a meeting Monday night at the Marietta High School auditorium. The district held a question-and-answer session to get input from the public and provide information on the proposals to consolidate classes and reduce building space. (Photo by Michael Kelly)

Achieving the flexibility to balance elementary school class sizes is one of the urgent goals for the district. With students scattered among four elementary schools, class sizes vary greatly.

Hampton pulled up a slide on the big projector in the auditorium showing the class sizes and grades in each of the schools.

“I get a report every month, and this is what we’re looking at,” he said. “Here’s a Grade 2 class in Putnam at 15 students, and one at Washington with 25.”

Curriculum director Jona Hall added, “These two groups of kids are getting a completely different kind of education.”

Each of the options presented had an attached savings in operating expenses from closing buildings and from staffing reductions. The amounts ranged from $800,000 a year for option no. 3, which would move seventh and eighth grades to Marietta High School, grades 4-7 to Marietta Middle School and K-3 to two elementary schools, and close two elementaries but require modular buildings at the high school; to a minimal change saving $230,000 which would move fifth grade to Marietta Middle School and close one of the elementaries.

Treasurer Frank Antill said the district operating deficit runs from $100,000 to $300,000 a year and is gradually eroding the reserve funding. Antill said the district needs to keep at least $2.8 million on hand – 60 days operating funds – and Hampton said at least six positions will need to be eliminated next year to keep the district financially sound.

Questions from the audience ranged from queries about the buildings and how children are educated to pointed inquiries about how the district handles its money.

Moving seventh and eighth grade to Marietta High School drew several questions, in part because it would require the use of portable classrooms to accommodate the increase in students.

One member of the audience asked why the school wouldn’t have room for those students if, 20 or 30 years ago, it had held more than 1,100.

Hall explained that all those grade 7 and 8 students bring along specialists and some educational requirements that weren’t in place two or three decades ago.

Marietta High School principal Chad Rinard said during previous times, those students were in only three grade bands, 10-12. Adding the seventh and eight grade would amount to six grade bands.

“That means more classrooms, more teachers,” he said. Antill said the building capacity is 1,105 people. Matt Demhlow, the district’s director of student services, said the district overall has 600 special needs students and another 400 gifted students.

“You have to take that into consideration when moving students, and for those with disabilities, it’s also a smaller student-to-teacher ratio,” he said.

Hall added that additional classrooms are needed for students on untypical academic trajectories, such as college credit plus.

During public debate about the building project, substantial discussion centered around engineering and traffic studies which many people thought might make the project’s feasibility clearer. The district decided not to undertake the studies before the vote, reluctant to commit six-figure expenses to a project that wasn’t certain and knowing that if the project was approved the studies could be paid from the project costs.

Mark Weihl asked how much the district had committed to an engineering study of Marietta Middle School. Antill said it cost $18,000.

“There were numerous questions about why no due diligence was done on the Washington State Community College project (the building project was planned for property adjacent to the college), such as traffic studies and engineering, but as soon as it failed, you spent $18,000 on the middle school,” he said. “If we had the money to do that in December, why didn’t we have it in July or August?”

“That traffic study could have been $300,000,” Antill said but acknowledged that the district had not received an exact estimate of what that study or others might have cost. He explained that the engineering assessment on the middle school was necessary so the district could make a decision on whether it would be suitable to invest further in it as part of the short term consolidation plan.

“The middle school will play a big part in this coming decision,” said Bill Hutchinson, a board of education member who was in the audience. “That $18,000, we felt it was worthwhile. We’ve been in that school from basement to attic, you see cracks, for example, in the foundation and you need an engineer to tell you whether that’s important or not. I wish we could have done those studies (for the building project proposal) but to spend that much on a ‘maybe’ was a hard thing, and the middle school is not a ‘maybe.’ We might pass a levy in November or we might pass one in 10 years, but we have to make a decision now.”

The middle school, a 129,000 square-foot-structure with 58 classrooms on 42 acres in the center of town, was built in 1926. Antill said in response to a question that the roof on the building was installed in 1995 and is nearing the end of its useful life.

“That’s $700,000 or $800,000, very conservatively to put a roof on it,” he said. “It didn’t make sense to do it last year before the bond vote, and now we have to be careful about spending permanent fund money before November of this year because we might pass that bond. We’re in a very difficult position.”

The meeting wound up after two hours, with those who attended being asked to fill out a survey form.

The district did get some positive response from the crowd.

“When the levy came up I was not for it, but you came to our house and talked about it, took the time to answer the questions,” one woman said. “I went to the auditor’s website and found out it was only going to be $125 a year. You need to somehow convey to people that if we do not step up and build new facilities … why not do it now when we have funds from the state. We have to do something now, our kids deserve a better education, we need to compete with places like Warren to bring more people into the community. We’re going to die, not be able to sustain ourselves.”

Hampton said the comments, questions and the surveys will be compiled for the board of education, which is scheduled to meet next at 6 p.m Feb. 24.