By RUSSELL JONES
The Otter Valley Unified Union has taken the first steps to correct a shortcoming that may be critical to approving the district’s long-term and controversial plans: trust.
To achieve that trust the school board’s Planning Task Force has set out seven elements in a three-step plan to transition the school district from its current structure to what could be a unified high school and middle school building (grades 5-8), redrawing some town lines for district purposes, and the possibility of closing one or more elementary schools.
The plan came about after 18 months of research where the task force reached out to the community about what the future district goals should be. They identified key elements of the plan to accomplish what the task force saw as the best option to provide education for the lowest cost to the community.
Shining a light on what the board sees as a current weakness, four of the seven elements involve building trust within the community. Board Chair Laurie Bertrand said that lack of trust stems from the district mergers.
“It took close to a year for the board to wrap their heads around the idea of a unified district,” she said. “What hasn’t happened yet is for those seven towns to know we’re unified.”
Bertrand added that when the districts merged, the board promised district residents no closings of any school for four years, but then restructured the small schools and some students moved schools twice in the same year. This, she said, caused a lot of anger in those three towns.
“We told them we wouldn’t close those schools,” she said, “but then we restructured and that felt like a lie to them.”
Now, after two failed bond measures that could point to trust being a factor with voters, the board is doing all it can to repair the damage and build new bridges with the district communities.
“At this point we just want to show everyone we are one unified district,” she said. “We are out there looking out for our students, staff, parents and giving the best quality education we can in the most cost efficient way we can do that.”
The road to rebuilding the trust between the school district and the district towns begins with the task force’s plan.
The first part of the plan is for immediate action and involves five elements.
• Building trust by developing and executing a communications plan that identifies the district as one unified unit versus separate buildings or schools.
• Building trust by developing and executing a communications plan that educates the community on the future of the district and timing involved.
• Building trust by identifying potential community or staff ambassadors to help district residents understand the forces shaping the future plans of the district.
• Proactive planning via establishing “viability policies” setting clear boundaries for change by identifying benchmarks for change — for example, if a school population falls below a set threshold for consecutive years, change is eminent.
• Board engagement through mapping out opportunities for community engagement for the year.
Proactive planning will be another way for the board to build trust, by letting people know in advance when things may be changing. The viability policies will be communicated to the community, allowing for a more proactive approach to planning and change should the need arrive.
The second step of the plan, not expected to begin before 2021, is moving school boundaries to shift populations between schools (primarily Neshobe and Lothrop). A professional may be required to survey the best way to move the boundaries based on bus routes and number of students needing to be shifted.
The final stage, set for 2023-2025, calls for a new middle school that would accommodate all the fifth through eighth grade students.
To begin those first steps down the path the task force has laid out, the board asked Superintendent Jeanńe Collins to do several things before the July meeting: She will
get the opinion of an architect on whether it would even be possible to build on top of the current OV high school building. She will bring back a policy outlining class size viability, and bring the board the demographics regarding school choice for the past three years.
The next meeting of the OV school board should be in July, but the date is still pending.