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Oak Ridge schools put tax increase on the ballot; discuss potential staffing cuts

Oak Ridge residents will vote on increasing the School District’s tax levy by 65 cents during the municipal election on April 7. The District is currently running at a deficit, with an estimated $361,000 of deficit spending this school year.

Based on projections released at a town hall last month, the District will still have to make additional cuts to become financially stable. The Oak Ridge R-6 Board of Education approved putting the tax increase on the ballot during a Jan. 17 meeting and certified the election ballot on Feb. 11.

If the proposition is approved, the adjusted operating levy of the district will become $3.5670 per $100 of assessed valuation of real and personal property.

During a Feb. 21 special session, the Board discussed whether it needed to consider if the district is in “shortfall” financial conditions described in state statute 168.124, in which case the District can place teachers on unrequested leave of absence. After a three-hour closed session in which the Board was able to ask legal council questions, no action was taken to start those proceedings.

In other action

• During its Feb. 11 meeting, the Board did not approve the recommended school calendar by the majority of District staff. District staff had voted on two options – one in which school started on Monday, Aug. 24, and one in which school started on Wednesday, Aug. 26 – and around 60 percent voted for starting school on Monday.

A concern raised by Board members was that students who took duel-credit classes at Southeast Missouri State University or attended the Cape Girardeau Career and Technology Center would have to start those classes on Monday.

The schedule was tabled for the next meeting and was sent back to the calendar committee.

Another issue brought up was the number of days that were taken off from the schedule over time. The District used to go 174 days, but students are currently attending school 165 days. Eftink was asked how that has affected instruction, to which he responded that it was “significant” but allowed for cost savings.

“At one point we looked at it, and it was about $12,000 a day to pay support staff, transportation and our regular staff to be here during that course of time,” Eftink said. He added that the District has six more days of attendance than the state requires.

“I’m worried that we are taking too much time away from our kids because we are worried about $12,000 a day,” Board President Rob Grayhek said.

Grayhek suggested getting rid of the eighth hour in the school day, which was added two years ago. He said it could be a way to get students more teaching time.

“It took eight minutes off every class, which equates to over a month a year in teaching time,” Grayhek said. “We did it because we were going to add additional opportunities for our kids, and what we did was add a second prep hour.”

Grayhek pointed out that no new electives were added since the eighth hour was put in place. The removal of eighth hour was put on the agenda as an action item for the next School Board meeting.

• The Board discussed reading program assessments for elementary students, with concern about the large number of students needing reading intervention currently.

Five kindergarteners, 12 first graders, 13 second graders, 10 third graders, nine fourth graders, eight fifth graders and six sixth graders currently need reading intervention. Most of these students are between six months and a year behind their peers.

Grayhek said he was worried about the number of students being too high, and wondered if it was the reading program’s fault.

“I’m a little concerned that we have a lot of kids in the reading program, and we are having a discussion about intervention when the real problem might not be intervention,” Grayhek said.

Superintendent Dr. Adrian Eftink blamed lack of training for new teachers, and not the program itself on the issues they currently have. The District currently uses Lucy Calkins Unit of Study for reading and writing.

Eftink said the school received grant money to change programs and receive training the last time reading scores were low in 2005. The last time the staff was fully trained on the current program was 2009, which was 11 years ago.

“When we talk changing programs, is sometimes $120,000 a year,” Eftink said. “Over the 10 years we’ve had Lucy Calkins, we probably haven’t spent that much on professional staff training on it. That training has been something that’s been put on the back burner because of finances.”

He added that their current scores are not low enough to qualify for school improvement grants they received in the past. “That’s where it’s frustrating,” Eftink said. “We are starting to get down to that again because our staff hasn’t been through that training. We have new staff from 2009 – there are very few holdovers from then.”

Eftink said they can’t do the training with the current financial situation, and they will need additional tax funding or freeing up money by cutting staff to divert money to this issue. Grayhek added that he wanted to see the difference in MAP scores before and after the Lucy Calkins program was implemented.

Grayhek said the Board also has a problem of people thinking they are focusing on “enrichment” instead of intervention. He said he has gotten these comments from residents the past few weeks.

“Our kids need to be working on reading,” Grayhek said. “For some reason, people seem to believe that we are driving enrichment. I don’t know where that came from, but I’m here to tell you that this Board never made that comment.”

Elementary School Principal Dr. Shawn Nix was confused by the comment and explained that the only thing they called enrichment was the teaching for fourth, fifth and sixth graders, while some students receive intervention.

“We call it enrichment, but we are doing academic things,” Nix said. “Most of it is all focused on language arts and reading. Today (Feb. 11), we were doing vocabulary and building words.”

• The Board’s next regular meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. on March 10 at the District’s Administration Building.

Jay Forness covers education, county government and community events for The Cash-Book Journal. He graduated from Southeast Missouri State University with a degree in multimedia journalism and has lived in Jackson for the past four years. He can be reached at cbjedit@socket.net.

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