Big changes in progress at Lakota schools five months since levy passes

Busing, art, gym; more tech and classes added

LIBERTY Twp., Ohio -- Lakota students and faculty are starting to see big changes since voters narrowly passed a school tax levy five months ago -- after three failed attempts forced deep cuts in Ohio's eighth-largest school district.

School officials immediately began reinstating items lost from millions of dollars in cuts, after voters passed the $13.5 million levy by a razor thin margin in November. The levy combined 2.0 mills, or $5 million, for permanent improvements and 3.5 mills, or $8.5 million, for operations.
 
It’s the first time the district won voter approval for a levy since 2005.

Lakota, which has 17,065 students enrolled this year, had to reduce its annual spending by $20.8 million when voters struck down the first levy in 2010. The district cut 300 teachers from its staff, eliminated a school period for high school freshmen and sophomores and reduced daily music, art and physical education classes to one day a  week.

It also increased athletic and band participation fees to $500 for each student for each sport, eliminated busing at the high school level and for all students within a two-mile radius of their school.

But with the new stream of revenue, which costs the owner of a $100,000 home $192 more a year, Lakota officials are bringing back many of the cut services.

And they said they’re on track to add a few more.

Sports and Transportation

The district has capped the amount of many families have to pay with children who participate in multiple sports. And it will lower the participation costs next school year. The maximum a family with one child will pay is $800 and for a family with four children, the cap will be set at $2,000.

In February, an additional 2,200 students in grades two through six who live farther than one mile from the school received busing once again.

Safety and Security

Lakota reserved $6.3 million out of the $13.8 million for safety upgrades. That plan includes adding upgraded and additional security cameras, improving school building entrances and upgrading current alarm systems.

The school district has increased the number of law enforcement officers in the schools daily from three to 10 after reaching agreements with the Butler County Sheriff’s Office and the West Chester Police Department.

Officials began placing the additional officers in January and finished in March, said Robb Vogelmann, assistant superintendent of the district.

Vogelmann said the officers, who now cost the district about $350,000 each year, will cycle through Lakota’s 22 school buildings.

“All 10 are rolling through as we speak. We see them helping us to make sure that our safety plans and our procedures are up to date and include the best practices as far as making visitors sign in, making them wear badges and all of those things,” Vogelmann said.

School administrators are slated to meet with school resource officers in June for a day of in-depth training in responding to various situations that arise at school.

Officials said they have placed room numbers on exterior classroom windows throughout the district to help emergency responders, and they are now finalizing grants to add radios and buzzers.

Chris Passarge, chief operations officer for the Lakota School District, said the district has hired an architect to begin work on a $7 million project to retrofit school building entrances for enhanced security.

Eleven of the 22 school buildings will have redesigned entrances so visitors who are buzzed into the schools must walk directly into a school office to check in.

“We have some buildings that don’t have a checkpoint, so as soon as you buzz in, you are in the main part of the building,” said Passarge. “If we have emergency situations, we need to account for people who are there.”

Passarge said the project will take 18 to 24 months to complete, although the district plans to do much of the work this summer.

“We’ll probably work on two to three at a time. Each building is different. If they can use the existing infrastructure and do a small remodel, we will, but some buildings we’ll have to build a whole new entrance,” he said. 

New Heat and Air Systems

Passarge is also overseeing a major upgrade to the heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems at Hopewell Elementary and Hopewell Junior High School.

The existing systems, Passarge said, are 40 years old and inefficient.

“If you don’t have air conditioning and heating spaces, teachers can’t focus on teaching and students can’t focus on teaching,” said Passarge. “We’ll get new energy efficient equipment that is serviceable and has parts.”

The project, expected to cost the district $7.9 million, is underway now. Passarge said the bulk of the work will be finished when students return to school on Aug. 21.

Technology

A significant portion of the levy is funding a multi-year technology overhaul across the district, aimed at enhancing learning in the classroom.

“There are neat, creative, engaging ways to use technology, and we have not been able to do that

before,” said Randy Oppenheimer, Lakota School District spokesperson.

Oppenheimer said the district will invest $1.2 million to purchase new teacher computers. It has also purchased iPads and ten tablet-sized computers for student classroom use.

Technicians are currently rewiring school buildings for an Internet bandwidth upgrade to allow more students and teachers to go online in the classroom at the same time.

“We didn’t have enough bandwidth,” said Oppenheimer. “That’s expensive equipment and we couldn’t afford it. Now we’ll increase the number of people who can be online at any one time and that’s important to have an engaging experience in the classroom.”

A director of digital learning joined the administrative staff just weeks ago to oversee six digital learning specialists who will work with students and teachers to learn how to effectively use the new technology.

“This will be a person who is going to research and plan and coordinate and oversee all of how we are using instructional technology in the classroom,” said Oppenheimer. “We haven’t had this position before because we had fallen so far behind on technology.”

The new director is Krista Heidenreich, a former assistant principal in the school district. The digital learning specialists, who haven’t yet been hired, will join the faculty next year.

“We want them in the classrooms showing them how to use both the hardware and the software to have practices going on to help kids learn,” Oppenheimer said. “The applications of the different technology are very different based on the age of the student and the subject.”

The school district has also hired five system support technicians to assist with implementing, fixing and maintaining the new technology equipment. 

Oppenheimer said the district hopes to complete the technology overhaul by June 2016.

Student Learning

Beginning Aug. 21, ninth-grade students will take an extra class. The change is a result of a new seven-bell schedule supported by the levy.

Vogelmann, the assistant superintendent, said the students are now finalizing their schedules for next year, and then the district will determine if it needs to hire more teachers. 

He said the school district is also on track to offer an additional day of art, music or physical education each week in the fall.

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