No Bond Issue – Schools Overcrowded

Photo of the halls of Ridgeview Junior High pre-COVID. Ridgeview, Pickerington Central High and Toll Gate Elementary all have enrollment in excess of what the buildings have been designed to accommodate. Photo provided by Pickerington Local Schools

July 7, 2021

There will be no bond issue on the November ballot, but there is also no fix for Pickerington’s problem of overcrowded schools.

In November and again in May, voters rejected a 2.9 mill bond issue which would have generated $95 million to build a new junior high school, add classrooms to both high schools and upgrade athletic facilities– including a new football stadium for Central.   

In a recent survey conducted by the district, 48% of those polled felt that Pickerington Local School District (PLSD) was on the “wrong track,” which may have clouded views about the bond issue.

“I’m just going to be blunt – this community is not being kind to us right now,” said school board member Cathy Olshefski. “I remain disappointed and frustrated because I think this ask is a need.  It’s very well defined. There’s no fluff.”

Three of the district’s schools (Toll Gate Elementary, Ridgeview Junior High, and Pickerington High School Central) have already exceeded capacity.

“The challenges we face are real,” Superintendent Chris Briggs said.  “We are still projected to have a thousand new students in the next five years and that’s not going away.  Part of the frustration we have is that people are still choosing our community because of the schools. You can look at any realtor’s website and know that houses are not on the market for very long and developers are going to continue to build in our community.”

When asked “what is the biggest reason that you think that many voters voted against the bond issues?” – the top answer (by 30% of the respondents) was that property owners did not want an increase in taxes.

“The unfortunate problem we have in this great state of Ohio is how we fund schools,” Briggs said. “So, until we can conquer that and get support from our community it is going to be an issue.”

Olshefski agreed with Briggs.

“We are charged with educating the students of this community, and we understand there is little to no commercial tax revenue,” Olshefski said.  “We get that this is a bedroom community, and we have to rely on those property taxes to fund our educational system by about 50% but we can’t do anything about that. Not in five years, not in ten years, probably not in 25 years.”

Had the voters approved the bond issue, the owner of a property with an appraised value of $300,000 (therefore an assessed value of $115,000) would have paid an additional $101.50 per year, or $8.46 per month.

The survey also revealed that half of the residents were unaware of the overcrowding problems and the bond issues – even parents with children in the schools said they did not know. This came as a surprise to PLSD staff.  Every residence would have received information in the mail, and flyers were mailed specifically to parents on five different occasions, said school board member Lori Sanders.

Olshefski said that the district needed to rework its communications strategy before returning to the ballot.

“You can’t argue with folks who say they didn’t know about it,” Olshefski said. “Anybody who is paying attention knows the ask. I don’t think we should ask for anything different, but we also need to listen to the community and right now they are in a “no”.  And I think another reason is the (fill-in-the-blank) COVID fallout – health concerns, personal, financial, security concerns.”

The Pickerington Black Parents Group (PBPG) also claimed credit for the failure of the spring bond issue.  The group maintains that until the school district embraces diversity, they will continue to rally their supporters against future issues.

Among PBPG’s list of desired improvements is the hiring of more black teachers and that the district improves upon its programming for Black History Month, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and Juneteenth. 

The PBPG formed after two administrators were reprimanded for posting social media content which violated PLSD policy.  The white principal speaking in support of the police was given a 10-day suspension, while the black assistant principal posting in reference to the Black Lives Matter movement had her promotion to principal rescinded.

Diversity issues continued to arise later in the school year as well.

In April, a social worker is alleged to have violated the district’s social media policy with a post referencing the body camera footage of a Columbus police officer shooting and killing 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant.  Also in April, an administrator told the cast of Pickerington Central’s performance of Hairspray to remove a prop that read, “Police Brutality MUST END!”

Of the survey participants who voted against the bond issues, 7% gave “racial/diversity consideration” as the reason.  Among the black respondents this statistic was 21%.

In November, three PLSD board positions are up for grabs.  Vanessa Niekamp and Clay Lopez will be seeking reelection (Lori Sanders is running for Violet Township Trustee), while PBPG members Christian Johnson and Charles Newman have entered the race.

With the deadline for applications not until August 4, the Board of Elections has yet to post the complete list of candidates.

For whomever sits on the board next January the problem will be the same – how to alleviate already packed schools that will soon be gaining a thousand more students?

“Our projected population growth has not changed, and some buildings are already overcrowded,” district treasurer Ryan Jenkins said.

With an enrollment of nearly 10,600 students, crowding is already an issue at most of the schools.  Accounting for the hundreds of new houses currently in development around Violet Township, the district projects enrollment to increase to 12,200 students by 2030, Jenkins said.

The bond issue will return to the ballot either in May 2022 or November 2022.  However, given the need, the district has already begun resorting to alternatives.

Students can no longer open enroll to Toll Gate Elementary or the secondary schools (except students asking to leave the crowded halls of Ridgeview to attend Lakeview).

Future steps that PLSD is considering would be to increase student to teacher ratios and redistrict buildings. Both of these options would require the district to dip into educational funding. Teachers are paid overages when they have more students in their classrooms than what is recommended. Longer bus routes would also cost the district more.

“We have got to start looking at those schools that already impacted,” Niekamp said. “There might be new developments and we will have to tell them, ‘Sorry that you drive right by Toll Gate but you are going to Violet where there is space’.”

Niekamp also said that increasing class capacities would create a safety risk.

“Those occupancy numbers are developed because that is what the number of exits can support,” Niekamp said. “That’s the fire suppression that is in the building and the time period it can accommodate to get people out safely. If we are packing people in beyond what is safe for them, we are jeopardizing each one of them.”

Redistricting is only a one-year hiatus from overcrowding, Sanders said.

“It may help one school this year and one school next year, but the fact of the matter is (whether people call it a threat or not) we are being forced into looking into some form of hybrid learning at some point if we can’t pass this,” Sanders said. “And with construction the way it is, we know it is more than three years. So, if we don’t believe the community is ready to support this, we are kicking the can down the road because the buildings won’t last five years the way they are, and we can’t afford portables.”

Ten years ago, the district relied heavily on portable classroom trailers, but today portables are not a financially viable option. 

“The difference between then and now is that you can’t have children walk out of portables to walk to the bathroom,” Sanders said. “That is the problem today with portables and it is too unaffordable to build a portable with restrooms. That’s the bottom line.  You can’t lock down and be in portables.  That is the biggest change in our environment in ten years.  It is a safety factor.  We can’t afford to do it.”

Olshefski said that portables were never a good option, even ten years ago.

“I see it on social media, time after time after time,” Olshefski said. “I see comments that portables were ‘good enough for my kids – they’re good enough for today’s kids’. No, they’re not! No, they’re not! We all had kids in portables – that’s not a way to educate your children. We’re not manufacturing widgets.  We are not storing boxes.”

The district may reintroduce a hybrid model for the overcrowded buildings where a certain number of students would attend school virtually each day by cohort, which was very similar to how school was conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The capacity of our buildings and the opportunities that our students have is a concern,” Briggs said. “We are not trying to scare anybody, but the reality is that we can only do so much with what we have, and we are continuing to grow.”

The November bond issue was defeated by a vote of 15,434 (53.15%) to 13,602 (46.85%) and in May by a vote of 3,723 (60.96%) to 2,384 (39.04%).

Graphics provided by PLSD