RIPLEY - The Ripley Board of Education met to discuss future options for its district including tuitioning out students, a deeper look into the merger study, annexation, dissolution of the district, a regional high school and some enterprising ideas that could change state legislation.
"I want to make it clear at the outset that we are not making any decisions right now," said Board President Robert Bentley. "This is simply a forum to find out what our options are and get everything out on the table."
Bentley also made clear his frustration with the entire process after going through three different studies, twice with Westfield and once with Sherman over the last 20 years.
"We've probably spent $100,000 on studies to attempt to change these districts and it hasn't gone through," Bentley said. "The process is flawed. It allows for last-minute campaigning and false statements."
The board's discussion, which included input from administrators, teachers, and District Superintendent Bob Guiffreda, outlined three major plans of action.
Plan A: Look deeper into the merger study
"There are several questions, especially with housing, that apparently were not answered to the degree the public needed them to be," said Interim Superintendent John Hogan.
Past Superintendent at Westfield Academy and Central School Chuck Pegan offered to do a study that will answer the housing options questions: will all the Ripley students fit at Westfield; could Westfield students fit at Ripley; what are the financial benefits of either scenario and how does that compare to the proposed split housing option as presented in the study?
According to Guiffreda, the State Education Department would be willing to allow another advisory referendum as long as something "significantly different" is presented to the communities. This could be a different housing option, or a change in the financial picture, he said.
"The merger study had the incentive aid divided up into thirds, one-third going to programs, one-third to capital projects, and one-third against the tax levy," Guiffreda said. "You could divide that up in any way you wanted."
The board briefly discussed annexation but agreed unanimously that they did not want to look into that option at this time.
Plan B: Ripley high school is a place, not a building
"Ripley high school is a place, not a building," said Hogan, explaining his creative solution to the board, "we take our kids wherever they need to go so they can get the education they need through BOCES, etc. Why can't we do the same for our high school students?"
Hogan's idea would send Ripley high school students to other districts. Ripley high school teachers would work out of the district, but still be employed by the Ripley district. Students would still graduate with a Ripley diploma and the district housing the Ripley students would benefit by utilizing Ripley staff to enrich their programming.
"I was told this is illegal," Hogan said. "But we are drafting special legislation that could put this plan into effect without a community vote. It would preserve teaching jobs and as long as we issued diplomas we would still be considered a K-12 school."
Hogan's plan is not fully formed as yet, the board questioned how the administration would look at Ripley once the high school students were all elsewhere.
"There is also a possibility for revenue by renting out available rooms to BOCES for special education classes," Hogan said.
Plan C: Tuitioning out to other districts
Tuitioning to reorganize is a process where a school decides to tuition out all or part of their high school to neighboring districts, according to Guiffreda. Only one other school in the state does this, Wyoming.
"Tuitioning to reorganize requires a community vote," Guiffreda said. "If you choose to tuition out high school students grades 7-12 for example, then Ripley would become a K-6 district under the current state legislature."
Some options for "receiving" schools the board is considering are Westfield, Chautauqua Lake, Sherman and North East.
"Surprisingly, the state allows students to cross state lines in these cases," Hogan said.
Ripley would have to create contracts with the receiving schools for a two to five year period, after which time the policy can be reviewed and voted on again by the public.
"When tuition students go to a different district, they become students of that school," Bentley pointed out. "They receive a diploma from there and play on their sports teams."
If the board decides to tuition out high school students, it would create excessed teaching jobs in Ripley.
"Teachers would be placed on a preferred eligibility list for receiving districts," explained Guiffreda. "Districts would not be allowed to hire someone else if there was a Ripley teacher on that tenure track."
According to Hogan, the earliest the school could implement a policy like this would be September 2010.
"Honestly, I don't feel comfortable tuitioning students out unless we're heading toward a regional high school or a merger," Bentley said. "I don't want to just put a bandaid on the situation."
"Any of these options could be done concurrently," added John Hamels, who served the Ripley board as facilitator during the meeting.
As far as the next year goes, Hogan feels the school will be "OK." Four teaching jobs will be eliminated through resignations and retirements but the course offerings will be very similar to what they were this year. Financial committee member Ted Rickenbrode said the tax levy will stay nearly the same as last year.
The board also discussed the options available for its sports teams, such as sending students to Westfield and/or Sherman or eliminating sports at Ripley altogether.
Dissolution of the district was discussed as a possibility for the future if nothing changes soon. According to Guiffreda, the district superintendent can dissolve a district if it is unable to manage itself, i.e. can't make payroll, bouncing checks, etc.
"This is not something we're talking about for next year or ever," Bentley said. "But it could happen simply by the enrollment dropping under 200."
The board has many options to consider and much more information to gather before it can make a decision. The next board of education meeting is Thursday at 6:30 p.m.
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