Conflict shadows Springboro schools success

10:56 p.m Saturday, Aug. 3, 2013 Local

Springboro Schools has achieved remarkable success and battled a deep divide over the past six years, as a changing cast of 13 school board members has overseen the district.

Students’ test scores have risen faster than in most comparable districts, and Springboro’s per-pupil expenses have actually dropped, at a time when most school districts have seen 10 to 25 percent increases.

But those accomplishments have been little-celebrated because of conflict that has made Springboro a regionwide, and occasionally nationwide, source of conversation and controversy.

Numerous administrators have quit, relations between the school board and teachers union have been strained, residents argued over taxes and levies, and some parents protested the school board’s recent proposal of policies they felt had a religious or political motive.

Many residents have blamed the school board for the turmoil. Board president Kelly Kohls says the teachers’ union deserves some blame, and union president Scott Maney said the community’s divisions on levies and political issues predate most of the current players.

Kohls, who is up for re-election in November, said the board’s conservative majority will continue its push for a “culture shift” away from repeated tax levies and toward policies she says align with community beliefs.

“The culture was, ‘How do we keep the money rolling in,’ and now, it’s ‘How do we get these kids more education for the dollar we have?’ ” Kohls said. “You had a culture, and to be the voice of the opposition to that culture is always going to be viewed in a negative way. And I’m OK with that. If I’m the change agent, I have to be OK with hearing that they don’t like the message. However, it’s reality. Sorry.”

Maney said his union’s acceptance of a five-year base pay freeze counters Kohls’ claims about recent “culture.” He also said that culture shift, coupled with lower pay than many districts, has led a flood of teachers and administrators to leave for other jobs. He said he hopes the new labor contracts just ratified are a step toward stability.

“What we want is collaboration, and healing and the ability to move forward positively,” Maney said.

Springboro Schools voters, who largely live in Springboro and Clearcreek Twp., rejected five new-money school levies from 2008 to 2010. The district closed an elementary school, reduced busing and increased pay-to-play extracurricular fees. No levy has been on the ballot since, but some of those cuts have been reversed.

But despite all the changes, in the five school years ending from 2008 to 2012, the school district was rated excellent or excellent with distinction every year, with state test scores rising. According to the most recent data from the Ohio Board of Regents, 2011 Springboro graduates ranked second in the entire Dayton area for college preparation, with only 14 percent needing remedial math or English classes as college freshmen.

Kohls argues that Springboro can have fewer staff and larger class sizes without lowering quality because it has stable families and little poverty, meaning most district students are well-prepared to learn.

“Your demographic does dictate the amount you have to spend,” she said.

Marla Bell, the state teachers union consultant who works with Springboro, said larger class sizes and less spending on classrooms have a negative effect on students and teachers. Union documents show 52 teachers, therapists and psychologists announced their resignations or retirements from Springboro Schools this year. Thirty-eight of those were resignations, more than triple the average year’s amount.

Springboro High School Spanish teacher Rachel Castro resigned last month for a higher-paying job in Carlisle schools, and cited frustration with pay freezes, larger classes, outdated textbooks and an “insulting” initial contract offer from the school board this year.

“I wouldn’t have looked for another job though if Springboro wasn’t moving in such a negative direction. I believe most of this is due to the Tea Party ideology of the board members, minus (Don) Miller of course,” she said in an email.

Jim Rigano argued that since he and fellow board member David Petroni led a budget review last year, the district is giving teachers what they need to educate students well. He described their ideology as student-first, and said if teachers don’t agree, there’s a free market to find a job that better suits them.

Springboro and Clearcreek Twp. are growing, affluent, politically conservative communities, but outside of school issues they’re not especially active politically. Few residents attend city council or township trustee meetings.

Springboro Mayor John Agenbroad declined to comment on what specific effect the school board controversies were having on the community, but he admitted there is an impact.

“It affects everyone, directly or indirectly,” he said.

Parent Doug Wiedeman has some complaints, but said he supports the board for its accomplishments, from replacing aging buses to reaching a contract with teachers and lowering the levy amount.

“The changes they’ve made have benefited everyone in the community,” he said. “Nobody wants to give these guys credit for anything.”

The board recently voted to place the renewal of an existing five-year school levy on the Nov. 5 ballot, but with the millage lowered from 10.3 to 8.78. If passed, the levy will generate $7.9 million per year rather than the current $9.2 million, with property owners saving $46 a year for every $100,000 of value.

Clearcreek Twp. resident Brad Lewin urged the board not to cut budgets so much that the district loses experienced, inspiring teachers.

“We are the richest zip code in the Dayton area,” Lewin said. “Nobody likes property taxes, and they’re a dumb way to fund schools. But I want to be taxed enough (to pay) for quality teachers.”

Teresa Rasnic, Realtor at Irongate Realty in Springboro, said the school controversies apparently haven’t scared off buyers or seller.s

“I’m not aware of any families taking that stance,” she said.

The current five-member school board features three outspoken fiscal and political conservatives – Petroni, Rigano and Kohls, who is the only one of the three up for election this November.

That board majority clearly has much community support. Kohls was the top vote-getter in 2009’s tight four-person race for three school board seats, while Petroni and Rigano narrowly finished 1-2 in a six-person field for 2 seats in 2011.

The fact that both elections were close, with pockets of passionate, sometimes angry support for each side, mirrors some national political trends, according to school board member Don Miller, who is not running for re-election after eight years on the board.

“It’s happening at all levels – everything in politics is so polarized, and there’s not enough cooperation,” Miller said. “What’s our identity? What is the whole community going to rally around?”

There hasn’t been much that the entire district has agreed on in recent years.

More than a dozen administrators have resigned, some citing differences with the board; a teaching candidate is suing the board citing retribution for her work on levy campaigns; a state employment board sided with teachers on an unfair labor complaint; the board and community members had a tense debate about the reassigning of the high school principal; and the board withdrew from the Ohio School Boards Association, with Kohls forming an alternative, conservative group.

The disagreement among residents is clear from a Topix.com blog about Springboro Schools with more than 25,000 often-nasty posts (the equivalent of a dozen posts every day for 5 ½ years). Maney called that blog “a cancer on this community.”

This year, religion and politics have become a bigger part of the discussion, although Rigano says the angst is misplaced.

Some residents and the ACLU attacked the board for including “evolution/creation” on a proposed list of controversial topics that could be explored in classrooms. Kohls and Rigano said the board never said it wanted to teach creationism, but wanted teachers to have the academic freedom to teach different sides of controversial issues, with Kohls adding that, “evolution has its scientists that, one believes this, and another says that can’t be true.”

The board also proposed summer seminars in the schools that critics say would put a religious spin on the U.S. Constitution. Both proposals were tabled, but Rigano defended the seminars, and said the controversy over religion is contrived, arguing that people were judging those sessions sight-unseen.

“I believe to my core that kids need to leave high school with a deep understanding of the founding principles of this country, Rigano said. “I got accused of wanting to indoctrinate kids, and I told them I hope they are indoctrinated, not by me, but by the original writings of people like George Washington, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams.”

Rigano said the Liberty Institute, a group “dedicated to defending and restoring religious liberty” has agreed to review future controversial district policies for free.

“It’s just such lightning-rod issues; it’s embarrassing,” Miller said. “All these great (academic) things are being covered up, because people are fighting the wrong fight. We need to focus on education.”

Recent school board meetings have been testy, with residents calling board members ignorant, and Kohls kicking out two audience members for failing to follow the speaking policy July 11. At the July 25 meeting, with three police officers in the room and multiple people videotaping the proceedings, Superintendent Todd Petrey made a plea for respect and collaboration.

“Based on the hostility displayed in the past few board meetings, I am increasingly concerned about the safety of everyone in attendance,” Petrey said. “As a collective group of concerned citizens, we must find balanced leadership together. … It takes a group of adults willing to put their frustrations aside to find balance that supports the best interest of all Springboro students.”

The teachers union and the board, both of whom had disagreed over contract negotiations and prepared for a strike, last month agreed on a contract that includes the teachers’ first base-pay raises in five years, tempered by some health care concessions.

Whether school board and teachers will work well together remains to be seen, but it’s clear they’re still coming from very different perspectives.

Interviewed last week, Kohls said school boards are up against “incredible opposition” when they try to change the culture of a district, adding, “I would guess that (the union) is a lot of the opposition to any kind of a change in philosophy.”

Maney and Bell pointed to data that they said shows Springboro is out of balance. It is the only district in Ohio to meet a set of six high academic benchmarks – including performance index, ACT score and Advanced Placement testing success – but spend less than $8,000 per pupil and pass only one new levy in the past decade.

Reminded that what the union saw as a problem, the board would likely see as a success, Bell said that situation is leading to a dangerous exodus of talented staff members that will hurt the district.

But the groups see that situation, too, through two different sets of glasses.

The departure of Malone and assistant principals who led Springboro High School to its Blue Ribbon ranking was a cause for alarm for Maney, given the lack of local experience the school will have at the top this year.

But Kohls said the replacement of high school administrators with new hires who have “the right mindset” was exactly the type of move that made her more confident in the district’s future.

Now Malone, former teacher/coach Dave Stuckey and funeral home owner/former board member Charles Anderson plan to run as a three-man ticket in an effort to oust Kohls and regain control of the board majority.

“I just don’t like the direction things are going,” Stuckey said.

Kohls, meanwhile is extremely happy. She said she continues to seek the best education Springboro can get for the dollar. Asked whether she would change anything from her first 3 ½ years on the board, she said she is “completely satisfied” with everything that was within her control.

“I’m so excited about the future of Springboro and the academics,” Kohls said. “Mark my words, in a couple of years, we will have the highest scores in the state, on everything. That’s what I think. Whether I’m here or not.”

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