Ohio island school sees enrollment shrink

By Annie Zelm

Sandusky Register

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

It boasted its high test scores, unmatchable student-teacher ratio and individualized curriculum. Last year's two graduates completed enough college credits to start college a full semester ahead of their peers.

Those selling points were enough to generate interest from eight families, Thiede said, but not enough to convince anyone to make the switch.

The district even offered to pay the hefty costs of transportation — sending children back and forth on the ferry each day, flying them when the frigid winters hardened the water.

But parents still had to find a way to make it to either Marblehead or Port Clinton by 7 a.m.

For some, that meant crossing the Edison Bridge each day, a nerve-racking ordeal when it's slick with ice.

Parents also worried about potentially leaving their children on an island overnight if a snowstorm bore down and kept everyone stranded.

It's not a frequent occurrence, but many island kids can recall the disappointment of missing a field trip or wrestling match on the mainland because of grounded flights.

The board even offered to screen a few residents and keep them on standby to house the students in bad weather, but that still required parents to trust their kids to a stranger.

Since open enrollment hasn't panned out, the district will look at its back-up plans this spring.

If it can't attract new students, it could send its students to another school while keeping its board intact, paying that district to provide services.

It could also merge with another district — essentially dissolving the board. That's an option no one likes to think about, and is considered a last resort.

Such a move would mean a loss of local control and a significant increase in taxes for island residents, officials said.

Without a local school board to manage the money, island residents would pay the tax rate in the district that takes over. Taxes would almost certainly be higher than the 11.5 mills the island school has in place. It has rarely collected even that — each year, the board determines how much money it actually needs to operate and holds off on collecting the rest. This year, it's only collecting about 6 mills.

If residents had to suddenly pay taxes to Sandusky City Schools, for instance, they'd pay 35.5 mills, according to Erie County auditor Rick Jeffrey.

But, there's a third option.

Board president Pete Legere said he envisions something else entirely — a way to attract a new audience while capitalizing on the island's vast natural resources.

Legere and others hope to establish a summer academy for its seasonal residents and their children.

It would feature hands-on science courses about the Lake Erie ecosystem and its wildlife.

"Looking at our demographics, the uniqueness of our island, this kind of approach is very logical," Legere said. "We don't have residents who have kids, but we have summer residents who have lots of kids."

The school board recently sent surveys to all island residents asking for feedback on the idea.

Legere has asked for a response by December and plans to follow up with further surveys if people show an interest.

The classes would be taught by professionals and students could earn college credits.

People who already pay taxes on the island could attend them for free, but they'd also be open to others for a fee. The students who already go to year-round school on the island could get some of their science credits out of the way, too.

A summer academy still may not solve the dwindling year-round school population, Legere said, but it's another way to make use of the taxes residents already pay.

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