Sunday, April 18, 2004

Falling enrollment threatens $1B plan

As the district subtracts students, spending dilemmas multiply

By Jennifer Mrozowski
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Sherron Lewis, 11, works on a math problem at the International College Preparatory Academy in Mount Auburn, a charter school. The popularity of such alternatives has accelerated the enrollment decline at Cincinnati Public Schools.
The Cincinnati Enquirer/STEVEN M. HERPPICH
Plummeting enrollment is forcing Cincinnati Public Schools to consider trimming staff, cutting the budget and scaling back its $1 billion school construction project before one new school is built.

School board members Monday will discuss the impact of declining enrollment on the decade-long project, being funded in part by a $480 million bond issue voters passed last May.

The numbers are stark: The district lost 13 percent of its enrollment since 1999 and is 2,400 students below the enrollment forecast for the construction plan.

"Having conversations about how we begin to scale back a little bit is going to be painful," Superintendent Alton Frailey said.

School enrollment losses and an overhaul of the construction project have implications beyond the school district. Changes could alter the landscape of the city, which anchors many neighborhoods by public schoolhouses. The city also depends on schools to draw young families.

More parents turn to charters
$1B school construction project under way
Cincinnati public has been losing students for decades, but heavy competition from public charter schools and a falling birth rate in the city have hurt Ohio's third-largest public school district.

The district's status of "academic emergency" hasn't helped attract students. Yet, higher-performing suburban schools are thriving.

Projections don't hold true

The plan to rebuild the city's crumbling schools was unveiled in January 2002 and included a decade of enrollment projections.

The final plan called for 66 new and renovated schools, but 14 fewer schools by 2012 because of falling enrollment.

The state, as a way to help Ohio school districts modernize schools, promised around 20 percent of the cost if voters passed a bond issue to help fund the construction.

But less than a year after voters passed the bond issue, billed as the biggest public works project in city history, district officials are rethinking its scope.

The number of schools was based on enrollment projections by DeJong Inc., a Dublin, Ohio, education consulting firm contracted by the state.

While DeJong predicted declining enrollment, school population is dropping faster than anticipated.

The forecast showed 38,539 students by 2010, down from 42,386 in 2000 - a 9 percent drop.

Those numbers are already the case; a 9 percent plunge has been experienced in just four years.

Charter schools - publicly funded schools run by parents, community groups, nonprofit organizations or for-profit companies - have been fierce competition.

The first two opened in Cincinnati in 1998 with around 250 students. Now 24 charter schools draw more than 5,500 students from Cincinnati school district boundaries. DeJong also predicted that Cincinnati's declining birth rate would level off, but rates are still falling.

On Feb. 23, Frailey asked the board to scale back the $1 billion project by one school - the new $10.3 million Porter Elementary in the West End. Porter is slated to house a math and science magnet program drawing 450 students from throughout the city. Construction is set for June.

Frailey said the program doesn't have a high demand.

"(To) build it on a hope we can attract students when we have the decline that we're dealing with, I find to be very irresponsible," he said.

Lack of board support forced him to withdraw the recommendation, but board members this month will review the construction plan, evaluate enrollment trends and could reconsider Porter.

Frailey said other changes could include building fewer small schools than originally planned. Most of the new schools now call for 350 to 650 students.

And other schools that don't now exist - like the planned magnet Montessori and military high schools - must be evaluated to see if there is demand, he said.

Worry about changes

Board members and some residents worry changes in the construction project might be premature and could hamper community development.

Dale Mallory, president of the West End community council, said he's concerned cutting Porter from the project could stall West End redevelopment. Such projects include building a mix of low-income and market-rate housing in the struggling, impoverished neighborhood.

"We need every bit and piece of that momentum to keep moving forward or we'll never solve the crime situation or the population situation," he said.

Mallory said he hopes the district considers renovating other West End schools, like Lafayette Bloom, sooner than planned, if Porter is removed from the project.

"The community right now is in a positive forward motion and the schools are a major part of it," he said. "If the schools situation is not resolved in the West End, then the families who would like to be relocated here will not come."

Board members are concerned that removing schools like Porter would be too costly because they've already racked up fees from architects and construction teams.

"We were concerned because we have spent money to design the building and (have incurred) other fees, and that would be money we would not recoup," school board President Florence Newell said.

As of March 31, the district spent $345,000 on design fees, soil reports and other work on the new Porter and has $353,000 in outstanding charges.

Newell said the board also is concerned about the impact on communities like the West End, and she noted that the board agreed to build a citywide math and science school there in part because it decided to move Sands Montessori - another magnet school - out of that neighborhood.

Any changes would need community input, she said.

Board officials have not publicly discussed what they would do with money generated from the bond issue if they are forced to scale back the project.

That decision might have to wait because enrollment fluctuations could continue, said Treasurer Michael Geoghegan.

"We're hoping with the new buildings to attract more students," he said.

Impact beyond construction

Declining enrollment also has the district considering trimming staff, cutting its budget and consolidating schools.

Proof of fiscal responsibility will be important when the district returns to voters, possibly in November, to ask them to renew a five-year $65 million levy for school operations.

"I would love nothing more than to get the district right-sized and to save the taxpayers dollars," Frailey said.

The loss of students leaves little choice.

The district's budget increased more than 20 percent in the past four years, from $360.3 million to $436.4 million this year.

Yet enrollment declined 13 percent during that period from 44,576 to 38,786 this year.

Last year, Frailey submitted a 2003-04 budget that was $700,000 less than the year before. More cuts may come, he said.

If the enrollment trend continues, the district could lose $7 million in state funding next school year.

The district's budget commission is set to begin meeting in May to consider budgeting for 2004-05.

Combining schools

One cost-cutting measure the district embraced is school consolidation.

This fall, four low-enrollment schools will consolidate up to four years earlier than planned.

Rothenberg in Over-the-Rhine and Vine school in Mount Auburn will merge into one school, as will Windsor and Douglass schools in Walnut Hills this fall. Each new school expects about 600 students.

"These are schools that were already scheduled to be consolidated," Frailey said. "We just accelerated it because they were small, struggling and couldn't get the resources they needed."

Enrollments had dropped below 300, making it difficult for the schools to pay for counselors, security and art and music classes. That's because Cincinnati schools receive money based on how many students they enroll.

Smaller schools receive fewer dollars for operating costs and staff.

District Assistant Superintendent Jeff Brokamp said the consolidated schools offer more services because they'll have more students.

This year, Douglass doesn't have security personnel, a music teacher or assistant principal, but the consolidated Windsor/Douglass school will be able to provide those. The smaller schools also couldn't afford technology coordinators. But the consolidated schools will, Brokamp said.

More consolidations are possible for 2005-06, Frailey said.

Annual savings for building operations, including maintenance, food service, utilities, networks and phone service, amount to about $542,000, according to Chief Operations Officer Tom Gunnell. That doesn't include staff savings, such as dropping from four principals to two.

The downside to some is that children and staff will have to change schools more than once.

Students at Douglass and Windsor will move into Douglass next year and then are expected to move into a newly built Windsor/Douglass school in fall 2006.

Some parents, once skeptical, are excited about consolidating.

"I was kind of scared about how they were going to fit the kids in (Douglass)," said Toni Bush, a parent of two children at Windsor who must move to Douglass. "But now I think they'll adapt to the Douglass situation and then they'll look forward to their new building. I think that'll work out great."

Staffing up, enrollment down

District officials are also considering the savings of reducing staff.

The district's teaching staff increased from 2,987 five years ago to 3,176 this year.

Officials say that's partially because of a promise made to voters in 2000 to decrease class size in the primary grades if voters passed a tax levy. The district went from a limit of 28 students per teacher in those grades to 18. The cost to add the teachers: $13 million this year.

An employee severance incentive plan is being considered.

In one scenario, senior-level teachers opting to leave could receive a buyout of one year's salary - not to exceed $60,000. If 600 teachers took it over two years and 200 weren't replaced, savings could total $110 million by 2012.

Frailey said the board hasn't approved a severance plan, but staffing must be analyzed.

He said the district hopes for attrition through retirements and resignations.

A tentative teachers contract, which was approved by the teachers union in March, included a severance incentive program.

A severance incentive package would be a humane way to encourage teachers who are contemplating resigning or retiring to do so, said Sue Taylor, president of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers. And it makes fiscal sense, she said.

"The district could hire two new teachers for what the district pays for one highly experienced teacher," she said.

The school board in March rejected the tentative contract. It's now in the hands of a fact-finder to make recommendations on disputed portions in May.

Despite the declining enrollment, some people say the district's building project is an opportunity to attract students.

They also say Frailey's plan to create a districtwide curriculum based on state standards will improve academics and hopefully draw people back.

"The new buildings are going to be beautiful and a selling point," said Windsor teacher Cindy Miller-Wehrle, whose 1888 school will consolidate with Douglass next year. She then will move to the new Windsor/Douglass when it's built. "But I know what's inside has to sell as well.

"We are working very hard to change the public perception of the public schools by giving 100 percent to make them good, safe places to educate kids."


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