Ryan Scott Ottney
PDT Staff Writer
SCIOTOVILLE — There was standing room only when an estimated 200 people packed into the tiny cafeteria at East High School in Sciotoville on Monday to hear the school’s plan for building new facilities without raising taxes.
“Tonight’s meeting is about hope, and it’s about a brighter future for this community. We have the ability to change Sciotoville. The people in this room, and the ones that should be in this room and aren’t, have that power. It is up to us, but we have to come up all together,” said Sciotoville School Governing Board President Bill Shope. “This school could be the thread that ties all the hopes together in Sciotoville. This school could bring unity in the community.”
According to a brief YouTube documentary played at the meeting, the current East High School building was built in 1917 and joined the Portsmouth City School District in 1921. In 2000, Portsmouth announced its plan to close the high school in Sciotoville and transport all of its students to new school buildings in the city. The community rejected the school’s plan and instead formed its own charter high school in 2001, known as Sciotoville Community School in the East High School building. In 2008 the community opened a second charter school — Sciotoville Elementary Academy (SEA). While the two schools share the same board members and general mission, they remain separate entities.
Before opening the SEA, Sciotoville Schools requested in 2008 the city school allow them to occupy the district’s newly built East Portsmouth Elementary (EPE) in Sciotoville. Sciotoville Superintendent Rick Bowman explained that they cannot take complete ownership of the city elementary school because of an ongoing Portsmouth City School tax levy used to build the facility. Sciotoville’s request was denied by the city schools and the community instead opened the new SEA in modular units on Third Street in Sciotoville. Bowman said Sciotoville made another request to the Portsmouth City School District this month, and it was rejected again.
“I would not have made a proposal to them if I did not believe it would benefit both school districts,” Bowman said.
He said the city school district operates East Elementary School at a deficit — costing about $12,000 per student while only generating about $10,000 revenue per student. Additionally, he said, the city has been unable to fill the elementary with Sciotoville students and has resorted to bussing city students all the way to Sciotoville just to keep it open.
“The fact is, the Portsmouth City School District buildings — all three of them — cost $65 million and change. The original tax assignment to that placed 17 percent on the school district in which you live,” Shope said. “That doesn’t sound like much, but you know this district received 11 percent of the funding. Seventeen percent of the $65 million that goes to Portsmouth, you get 11 percent. Where’s the justice?”
Included in Sciotoville’s latest offer to Portsmouth City Schools was an agreement to transport their own students (a service which the city school currently provides to Sciotoville by law), EPE teachers would be given a first priority for any additional teaching jobs needed at the school, and the city school would retain ownership of the building and its tax levy, while the Sciotoville Governing Board would be responsible for all operating and maintenance costs.
“This is their words. They do not see it in the best interest of the Portsmouth City School District to give up operation of East Portsmouth Elementary. And they have every right. That is their prerogative,” Bowman said.
He went on to add, “I thought it was win-win. I still think it’s win-win. Now, the answer was no — today. We’re not going to give up on that. We’re going to continue to work toward some type of an agreement because I believe it’s in all of our best interests to have a partnership with Portsmouth City Schools.”
Portsmouth Superintendent Scott Dutey on Tuesday said the East Portsmouth Elementary building was not a drain on the city school, and is not under-utilized by the district. He said the building currently offers five classrooms for preschool and educational disabilities, with hopes of expanding both programs in Sciotoville.
In addition to continuing their effort to occupy East Portsmouth Elementary, the board also reported Monday evening that several members of the Sciotoville Community are preparing to file an injunction to get out of paying the ongoing tax levy for Portsmouth City Schools.
In the meantime, Sciotoville School is moving forward with plans to build new facilities of its own, and the school’s governing board met with the community Monday evening to share those plans and answer questions.
“Tonight’s meeting is just the first step, a small step, in a journey that can and will be Sciotoville’s greatest accomplishment,” Shope said. “Thirteen years ago it was about existence. It was about, in a way, a foreign board closing what was centerpiece of our community. Now this fight is about growth, and it’s about justice. And it’s time for this injustice to stop. It’s not about blue and gray or red and blue, it’s about educating kids better. And anybody who argues the point can deny it as much as they want, but there is a track record. During our 13 years of existence we have done a better job educating our children than what Portsmouth City Schools ever did, and what they do educating their own right now.”
Shope said most of the existing East High School is almost 100 years old, and even the newest additions to the building are still 50 years old. He said the building is amazingly well-kept, but students of Sciotoville, and the community, deserve better.
Bowman presented several options of which the governing board is exploring. He stressed that there were no guarantees this early in the planning stages, but the school does own several pieces of property where they could potentially build new facilities. Those properties are located near the baseball field on Ohio 140, and near Allard Park on Harding Avenue. The board will also consider building new facilities around the existing East High School.
The school is currently looking at two possible developers; the American Charter Development Group in Utah would build a traditional on-site building with no up-front cost to the school and a lease-to-own contract, or the Innovative Modular Solutions company in Indiana could be a combination of on-site and modular components to build new facilities much cheaper and faster. Bowman said the school will consider building in phases, giving priority first to the elementary.
Because of its community school status, the school does not qualify for funding assistance through the Ohio School Facilities Commission and cannot levy taxes on the community. Instead, Shope said, the school is looking at other funding methods, which might include private investments and grant funding for high-performing school districts.
“We have worked with our sponsor this past year to try to combine our two school districts — the SEA and East — into one school district. We believe that would stabilize our efforts in everything that we do. We view ourselves as one school district, and yet we have to operate as two. Everything we do we have to do twice. Every time we have a board meeting, we have to have two. We worked really hard last year at running into walls, trying to break them down to get our students put together as one. We weren’t successful. And the reason we weren’t successful is because the laws that govern charter schools in this state just won’t allow us to do that yet without having to lose a lot of assets from one of our schools,” Bowman said. “We’re going to keep trying to do that, to benefit all of us. And I do believe as time goes along, the laws are going to change and hopefully we’re going to be able to maybe have some influence in Columbus and maybe the law will change just for us.”
He said the school has even gone as far as to talk to state officials about becoming a traditional school district — the Sciotoville Local School District.
“In my opinion, it’s the best thing that could happen to us,” Bowman said. “It sort of puts us on the same playing field as everybody else in the county.”
After presenting its history and plans for the future, the school opened the meeting to the public for questions and comments.
“This is time for you to step up with us and give us direction what you want. If, the next time we have a town meeting, you say ‘Guys, we thought about it and we don’t know that this is necessary,’ then we’ll pull back. Because we serve you. We are your voice. Boards, congressmen, councilmen, it doesn’t make any difference. If you’re an elected official you’re there to represent the people that put you in office,” Shope said.
The community seemed largely supportive of the school’s plan to explore new facilities. Some people questioned the fate of East High School, should the school move forward to build new facilities. Shope expressed his own fondness for the building, as well, and said that fate has yet to be determined by the board. Another asked if the school would consider offering preschool in their new facilities, and the board said that is something they could think about once they have more space available.
One resident asked why the entire community doesn’t secede from the city of Portsmouth entirely, and Shope said that has been discussed in the past and would likely come up again, but said it would be easier to negotiate from a position of strength when and if the school has new facilities.
Ryan Scott Ottney may be reached at 740-353-3101, ext. 287, or firstname.lastname@example.org. For breaking news, follow Ryan on Twitter @PDTwriter.