Planning task force eyes difficult task

By Russell Jones

BRANDON — What does it cost to deliver equitable education to all students and what would that look like? This is the question that the Otter Valley Unified Union planning task force, comprised of OVUU school board members and community members, is tasked with answering.

The task force met last Thursday at the Book and Leaf in Brandon to continue discussion of a long-term plan for the school system. The task force is looking into what it would take to provide the same education opportunities to all students throughout the district.

The district currently has different curricula at different schools. Some schools start assigning homework to students at early ages while students in other schools do not get homework until they reach the middle school level. Students at Neshobe Elementary in Brandon are taught to read music while other schools do not offer this.

“We want to provide equitable education to students regardless of where the school is located,” said OVUU board member and chair of the task force Greg Bernhardt.

Task force members have a daunting and complex task ahead of them as they consider what it will cost to keep the smaller schools open or perhaps move toward a middle school model.

“Even if we plan to move forward with no changes to the makeup of the schools, we still have to plan for the future,” Bernhardt said. “Neshobe is at capacity for the number of students it can accommodate and the smaller schools will need ongoing maintenance.”

Before the six towns in the OVUUS voted to merge school governance in 2016, each school was its own district and there often had to be tough decisions on maintaining education programming and teaching staff or doing facility upkeep.

“Even if we plan to move forward with no changes to the makeup of the schools, we still have to plan for the future. Neshobe is at capacity for the number of students it can accommodate and the smaller schools will need ongoing maintenance.”

— Greg Bernhardt

“There was not much room to build-in maintenance beyond the routine daily work, and the boards often depended on whether they had a surplus to do the longer-term work that needed to be done,” RNESU Superintendent Jeanńe Collins said. “They did well, overall; the buildings are in decent shape. However, not everything could get done in a timely manner and it was not unusual to defer a project to another year or to a year of surplus budget money in order to do the work.”

Keeping all the schools open going forward is not an unreasonable goal, but it will require a commitment from the community as well as the district.

Previously the task force has solicited community input through surveys and focus groups to find out what were the most pressing issues regarding the school system. Of the 515 responses received from the survey this past fall, 41 percent said they would like to see the idea of no change explored, while only 27 percent said they would like to see a district-wide middle school explored and 17 percent said they would like to see a district-wide elementary school explored.

On Thursday, the task force used what it learned from the community input to start developing the first of the long-term plans. They began with a no-change plan which, unlike its name implies, would actually involve several changes.

Because the task force would like to see the same education opportunities available in every school in the district, this would actually be a substantial change to current curricula for some schools. The task force is also figuring out the costs associated with the no-change plan, such as extending those learning opportunities to all students and the upkeep costs of maintaining the status quo.

“Even if we’re not consolidating or building new buildings,” task force member Alyson Popa said, “there will still be some investment necessary to maintain the small schools.”

Soon, the task force will begin to develop a plan for change. Likely, consolidating the small schools into a middle school model. This would presumably make equitable education easier, as schools would likely be consolidated rather than spread out all over the district. However, there has been some pushback in the past over closing the small schools.

Some in the area feel that the small schools are the only thing holding small towns together as well as giving them a sense of pride for their community.

“I think it is too soon in this process to talk about closing anything, and I did not hear the task force actually decide to recommend that. At this point, they wish to look at what we have and the cost of keeping the status quo (schools, programs, etc.) going forward and to also look at capacity and models and bring forward a proposal (or more) with some recommended changes for consideration,” Collins said.

“They wish to bring these ideas to the community in March for input and feedback before going back to the OV board in April,” she added. “The survey that was completed by over 550 people in the fall touched upon some of the ideas, such as a dedicated middle school model in one location for grades 5-8. That is just one idea and not one anyone is wedded to at this time, but it has been discussed in the survey.”

The goal in the end is to provide quality education to every student in the district, no matter where that student lives or attends school. What that will look like is still anyone’s guess.

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