The future of Ripley schools

RIPLEY – Ripley area residents will cast their vote soon to decide if the district will send its students in 7-12 grades to another school next year.

More than 100 residents, teachers and students filled the small gymnasium at Ripley Central School recently for an informational question-and-answer meeting of the Board of Education concerning the possibility of tuitioning students in these grades to Chautauqua Lake Central School.

An official binding referendum will be held on Feb. 5. Voting will take place in the Distance Learning Room from noon to 8 p.m.

Eight guest speakers were on hand representing different voices in the debate, which has gone on since August when the board was petitioned to seek a public vote on the issue.

The speakers were: David Farmelo, of Hodgson-Russ Law firm; John O’Conner, Erie2 BOCES assistant superintendent; Allison Fisher, a junior who surveyed RCS students on the issue; Kira Mellors, a freshman taking part in the CLCS pilot program; Dave Adams, representing PACE, (Parents Advocating Change in Education), a group favoring tuitioning; Alex Reyda, representing the Ripley Education Association; Sara Dayton, of Lumsden and McCormick, the district’s financial auditors; and Ripley vice-principal Anna Armstrong.

Each speaker was allotted two minutes to address the gathering, but few did more than introduce themselves.

Dayton, speaking for the auditing firm, merely stated that Lumsden and McCormick agreed that the financial aspects of tuitioning students were reasonable.

Reyda and Adams, however, speaking for opposing viewpoints, shared strongly-worded comments. Reyda urged the crowd to vote against tuitioning.

“In my opinion, a bigger school does not necessarily mean a better education,” he said. “All you hear from Ripley is the doom and gloom and how poor we are. My point is that there are many districts out there in the same position.”

Adams spoke just as fervently, urging listeners to vote for tuitioning. “Now we have the opportunity to take charge of our children’s education,” he said. “Tuitioning is the only answer. You can see it from the kids going there. We have to make a decision to give kids the opportunity they deserve. … If you don’t believe me, go look for yourself. It’s an unbelievable opportunity and a great school for our students.”

Ripley superintendent Karen Krause gave an overview of the district’s struggles during the last 20 years. During that time, enrollment has declined by 224 students, and the district has voted on either consolidation with another district, or annexation by another district five times.

At the end of the 2011-12 school year, facing rising costs, declining enrollment, reduced state aid and a 2 percent property tax cap, Ripley polled students in grades 7-12 asking: “Should students in grades 7-12 be tuitioned to Chautauqua Lake Central School?” One hundred twenty three answered “yes” to 93 who answered “no.”

At the August school board meeting, representatives of PACE presented a petition with 147 signatures urging the board to seek a public referendum on the question.

District financial manager LouAnn Bahgat presented an overview of district finances, ending with the three-year projection that, if Ripley continues as is, it will have a deficit of $323,627.

Principal Lauren Ormsby then stated that this scenario would result in the loss of at least seven teacher positions as well as 8-19 elective courses being eliminated.

Tuitioning to Chautauqua Lake would result in the anticipated loss of one administrative position, one clerical, 12.5 teaching, 1 professional support staff, one teaching assistant, three teacher aides, 15 coaches, 10 advisers and reduced time for cafeteria and maintenance.

Board president Robert Bentley began the audience question-and-answer urging people to remember that “we will all be friends and neighbors long past this issue.”

Resident David Hart asked what the cost would be for each student if they were to be tuitioned. Bentley answered that there was a state formula for determining that, but Ripley could not afford it. Negotiations are ongoing with Chautauqua Lake, he said. However, Ripley has calculated that tuitioning these grades would save the school $700,000 and the district would not spend more than that.

“If we are sending 141 children, then we have $700,000 available,” he said. “I believe you will see improved education as a result of tuitioning, but we are at a break even mode.”

Robin Albright inquired what would become of the school’s physical plant if students were tuitioned, since much of it would be unused.

Bentley replied that the school had been discussing the possibility of placing the town offices there. “That is the only thing we have explored to this point.”

Bentley noted that the tuitioning contract would span two to five years. If the possibility of a regional high school became reality, Ripley would be able to take part in it.

Justine Mellors said she felt the real question was not about where to get a better education, but about combining resources, in the face of declining enrollment across Western New York.

Bentley replied that this decline shows no sign of stopping. “We’ve been shaving and shaving and shaving,” he said.

Ripley junior Allison Fischer protested that many of the students at Ripley do not want to go to a larger school. “We kids are not just a number,” she said. “We grew up like this. We love who we grew up with; we love where we are. I have 83 kids who don’t want to leave this school.”

Wanda Bentley, a cofounder of A.R.C.S. (Advocates for Ripley Central School) asked how the board can justify teacher and administration salaries ($80,000-$90,000 for teachers and $127,000 for the superintendent) and 100 percent health coverage.

“I think we’re putting the cart before the horse,” she said

Bentley responded that some of the Ripley staff do make a large salary, but also look at the work they did to get there and the hours they put into the job. Also, he said, “that is the going rate for these positions.”

Joyce Walzer, a teacher at Ripley for 18 years, stated that the smaller classes at Ripley have been a benefit to the student’s education. “I’ve had greater participation and a high success rate due to the small groups,” she said.

Robin Estes asked what security measures Chautauqua Lake had to ensure the safety of the children. Principal Lauren Ormsby replied that they were currently meeting with staff from there to increase security.

In his closing comments, Bentley said the board “would always look for new opportunities for education. We need to realize that change has come to education in New York state. We cannot stay the same. We need to realize that change has come to education in New York state. We cannot stay the same. We must adapt.”