Ohio island school sees enrollment shrink

By Annie Zelm

Sandusky Register

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 30 2011 12:41 p.m. MST

In this Thursday, Oct. 6, 2011, photo, Collin Nunn-Strassner, a sixth-grader at Kelleys Island Local School, reads with teacher Shannon Leary in Kelleys Island. Ohio. Nunn-Strassner is one of eight students enrolled in the school during this school year. While the island’s property wealth provides plenty of funding, the school still has fixed costs to pay, whether it has 8 students or 80. Like any school district, the bulk of that goes to the salaries and benefits of its staff.

The Sandusky Register, Luke Wark, Associated Press

KELLEYS ISLAND, Ohio — Three eighth-grade boys stare at a projector while their social studies teacher talks about the Hindu Kush mountains that isolated a region for centuries, providing a protective barrier and producing a distinct culture. The mountains sheltered those inside their walls, keeping out foreign influences.

The students nod as they take notes. Each sits at his own large table, strewn with his belongings. There's a conspicuous absence of note-passing, pencil-throwing and chatter.

The class discussion of geographic isolation is somewhat ironic for these teens, who are surrounded by water and live with fewer than 100 people year-round.

Their entire school has eight students — and, they lament, only two are girls. One is a high school junior who travels to the mainland each day to attend the EHOVE career center with two other boys; the other is in third grade.

"That's one of the downs," laughs Layne McNeal, 13, who moved to the island six years ago with his missionary parents. "That's what tourist season is for."

There are, of course, some obvious perks to life at the Kelleys Island school.

Graduation rates of 100 percent for 30 years and 100 percent passage of state tests, year after year.

Safety.

Highly individualized attention.

"There's basically a teacher for every student," superintendent Phil Thiede said. "It's publicly funded homeschooling."

For more than a century, that model worked just fine. The population of the island and its historic brick schoolhouse ebbed and flowed like the waves of Lake Erie, but it always held steady.

In recent years, however, it has slowly evaporated.

The photographs of past graduating classes become much less crowded as visitors walk down the halls that bear Green Devils logos. Since the limestone quarry stopped operating in 2007, there's been little construction on the island and few jobs.

The school's staff seems to know all too well they might be on borrowed time.

There are no babies or young children on the island to take the place of the graduates, they point out.

While the island's property wealth provides plenty of funding, the school still has fixed costs to pay, whether it has 8 students or 80. Like any school district, the bulk of that goes to the salaries and benefits of its staff.

The school has spent a little more than $600,000 on salaries and benefits in each of the past three years and scaled that back slowly as students left. It plans to spend about $100,000 less on staff costs in the upcoming year, according to its five-year forecast. That includes wages for three teachers whose salaries average about $50,800, as well as a secretary, part-time custodian, a curriculum director and counselor who each work on an as-needed basis and an art teacher who works one day a week.

It doesn't sound like much.

But when you only have five students at the building each day, it all boils down to more than $83,000 per student — the highest per-pupil spending in the state by far, according to figures provided by the Ohio Department of Education. Most public schools in the area spend less than $10,000 per student each year. Kelleys Island Schools' neighbor, Put-in-Bay, paid about $29,000 to educate each of its nearly 80 students.

That begs the question: At what point will the Kelleys Island school have too few students to justify its costs?

Recognizing that the student population has reached a critical low, the school tried opening its doors to students on the mainland last spring.

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