'Reduce, rethink' strategy worked for Conrath in school district

Thursday, January 4, 2007

ThisWeek Staff Writer

2006 was a year of challenges for Melissa Conrath, who took over as Superintendent for Worthington Public Schools one year ago on New Year's Day.


Ballot-Box blues

Conrath's tenure with the district hit its first rough patch just months after she came on board, when a proposed 6.25-mill combination operating/permanent improvement levy was rejected by voters.

"It was soundly defeated," Conrath said.

That defeat led Conrath to pursue a strategy she called "reduce, rethink and recalculate," she said.

Part of the district's "rethinking" was the elimination of its 2006 operating-levy proposal. By the time the district returned to voters in November, it brought only a $37.5-million "no-new-taxes" bond issue.

The district managed to eliminate the operating levy proposal -- or at least delay it -- by finding about $4-million in reductions through the end of 2008, as well as about $480,000 a year in savings in health care; an additional $2.3-million in income over three years in unexpected tangible taxes; and an additional $1.3-million over three years of unexpected interest.

From a $5.96-million deficit at the end of 2008, the bottom line had been changed to a nearly $2.86-million surplus.

"With the defeat of the levy, it made us sit back and reflect a bit," said Conrath.

Voters in November signed off on the bond levy, which will provide about $18-million to cover a variety of maintenance issues and renovations from roof replacement to heating and cooling system repairs, as well as the replacement of about 40 buses and 3,400 district computers.

Though Conrath was disappointed by the defeat of the May issue, she said campaigning for issues in the spring and fall helped her meet many district stakeholders.

"The operating levy gave me a chance to meet a number of people in the school district and find out what they thought of the district," she said.


Student acheivement

Worthington students continued to excel in the classroom during 2006, Conrath said.

A record 17 Thomas Worthington High School students were named National Merit Semifinalists.

For its part, Worthington Kilbourne boasted 5 semifinalists among the 16,000 high school seniors nationwide who qualified for the honor based on their performance on the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test.

Meanwhile, the district received a perfect state report card for the sixth consecutive year, meeting all 25 standards set by the state.

Among the standout schools in the report was Colonial Hills Elementary School, which was praised by board members for earning an excellent rating for the first time. Colonial Hills met state standards on only two of ten tests in 2003.

Overall, Conrath said she enjoyed her first year at Worthington's helm.

"I started and was handed a levy that wasn't successful," she said. "It's been a very busy year for me, but it's been great.

"Creating a stable financial future for the district was a major effort this year. To me it's professionally very rewarding to be a part of that effort," she said. "It's a wonderful district."


Looking ahead

Conrath said the biggest challenge in 2007 will be no different than in previous years -- providing the best possible education to students while managing a limited budget.

"How do we best prepare our students for the future, particularly as resources become more and more scarce?"

Among the decisions facing district officials in 2007 is when to put an operating levy on the ballot.

"The board will need to determine when we need to be back on the ballot," Conrath said. "We do know we will be on balance through the 2007-8 school year. I have no idea what we'll be recommending."

The district will also revisit its five-year strategic plan, Conrath said. The last such plan ran through 2005. Conrath hopes to work with district stake holders during 2007 to revise and update the plan, she said.

A continuing decline in enrollment at Worthington's four middle schools may mean one of them will be closed or turned into an "alternative" middle school, Conrath said.

Middle school enrollment is projected to hit a low of about 1,300 students, a number that would support only "three-and-a-half middle schools," Conrath said.

Which facility might be used for the alternative school is up in the air, Conrath said -- what shape that program takes may dictate its location. One proposal, for example, focuses on "experiential" learning and would be benefit from a location near bus lines, Conrath said, possibly making Kilbourne Middle School the best site for such a program.

Proposals drawn up by four teachers are scheduled to be presented at a public meeting Jan. 20.