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.

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.

"From a geological standpoint, the place is a wonder," he said. "We have the money, the resources to run the very best school in the world. We just need kids."

Even if the district no longer has enough students for a school, it plans to keep the building open to the community. That way island residents can still use the gym, library, and meeting rooms, school officials said.

But its staff would have to find jobs elsewhere.

Bonnie Shoff, who travels to Kelleys Island one day each week to teach art classes to students and adults, said the closure of the school would be a "devastating" loss.

"The school is the center of the community," she said. "They embrace these kids as their own and are very proud of what they do. They say it takes a village to raise a family, but that's how it really is over here."

Annie Coulon, 52, hopes her youngest son can carry on the family tradition by graduating from Kelleys Island in 2013.

Bobby, 17, is a junior who commutes to EHOVE on the mainland each day with his older sister, Crystal, a senior. His only classmate, Ben Krzynowek, is also his best friend.

Bobby and Crystal's three older siblings all graduated from the school, and two went on to pursue big-city careers in the restaurant industry.

As teenagers, they constantly complained that they were bored, and now they can't wait to come back home to visit. Coulon works seven days a week at the Village Pump in the summer while her husband Rob maintains properties on the island. Both take a break during the winter months.

"You get the best of both worlds here," said Coulon, who grew up in Pemberville and moved to Kelleys Island in 1986 and has had relatives there for decades.

Some of the family's best memories involve school-sponsored activities like field trips to Washington, D.C., Boston, Mass., or Texas — trips most other students would have to pay for out of their own pockets.

Without the school, they wonder what will be left of their tight-knit community.

"I have a lot of memories at that school," she said. "It's always been a part of the community. But what are you going to do if there aren't any kids?"

Thirty years ago, the one-room, first-through-eighth-grade school on Middle Bass Island faced a similar dilemma. John Schneider was one of four students in its last class.

As he and his brothers graduated eighth grade and moved on to high school at Put-in-Bay, the school faced the prospect of having only one student.

The school board opted to close the school in 1982 and send students to Put-in-Bay, which it has done ever since.

Four students now travel from Middle Bass to Put-in-Bay each day, by boat or by plane.

The Middle Bass Island school board remains intact, collecting about $240,000 in taxes each year.

That pays the out-of-district tuition to Put-in-Bay — $31,000 per student — plus the students' transportation costs, said Schneider, who is now the clerk for the Middle Bass school board.

Residents have often wondered why the board doesn't send students to a school on the mainland that offers open enrollment, instead of paying such high tuition costs.

Doing that would certainly be cheaper, Schneider said, but not necessarily practical.

When winter weather sets in, he worries about his 11-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter becoming stranded on the mainland without a place to stay.

Even North Bass Island, a largely undeveloped territory that had been used mostly as vineyards, had a one-room schoolhouse until recently.

In June 2006, it closed its doors after 150 years when its only teacher, Paula Fausey, retired to Arizona. The only two students moved to other school districts, and the 700-acre island now has fewer than 15 permanent residents.

But Kelleys Island Schools superintendent said as his district tries to move forward, it's not likely to look to other island schools of the past.

"We're really unique," Thiede said. "Whatever we do, we're kind of a trendsetter for ourselves."

Information from: Sandusky Register, http://www.sanduskyregister.com/cgi-bin/liveique.acgi$sch=frontpage?frontpage

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