School board broaches phone concerns
- Published: July 27, 2023
At the most recent regular meeting of the school board on Thursday, July 6, board members and Superintendent Terri Holden discussed the issue of phones and other mobile devices in the schools, as well as potential methods to address students using the devices during instruction time.
The discussion was prompted by a letter written to the board by a group of 16 parents of local students; the letter lauded “the merits of phone-free learning environments.”
“Evidence seems clear that a phone-free culture at school fosters learning, nurtures more real connection and compassion and supports the wellbeing of young people,” the letter reads. “We believe that a well-designed plan — one that allows for the needs of all learners and frees staff to focus on student learning and wellbeing — would have the community’s support.”
“I’ve talked to our principals and I think we’re all in agreement that it’s an issue,” Holden said. “I think the million dollar question is: What do we do about it?”
The Student Handbook allows students to bring mobile devices to school, but requires them to be “set to mute/silent” while on school property. It also states that any electronic device used in class or school activities is “restricted to academic or instructional purposes only, as determined by the instructor.”
Holden noted that some area schools, including in the Dayton and Fairborn districts, have begun requiring students to store their phones in pouches that stay on the student’s person, but are locked magnetically during class periods.
“I think we’re going to explore that and other things,” she said.
Board President TJ Turner noted that requiring the magnetic pouches would necessitate a financial investment from the district, and questioned whether it is ultimately the responsibility of district employees to police phone use.
“Our teachers are trying to teach. At a certain point, parents have to set the expectations for their children for how they behave when they’re out of their sight,” he said. “I don’t know that the solution is even taking them away or putting them in the bags or anything like that — that’s an extra cost for us, an extra logistics challenge.”
Holden thanked the letter-writers and said she and other district administrators would seek additional information from surrounding school districts with different policies and strategies regarding mobile devices when considering how to move forward.
“We are going to try to come up with a solution,” she said.
Facilities levy update
The board unanimously approved a resolution to proceed with a combined income tax and property tax levy — the final step in the process of placing a facilities levy before voters on Nov. 7.
The levy is intended to fund a $55.3 million project that will renovate Mills Lawn Elementary School as a preK–fourth grade school and create a campus for grades 5–12 at East Enon Road through a combination of demolition, renovation and new construction. If approved by voters, the project will be funded through a 37-year bond issue of $26,630,000, levying a property tax of 7.9 mills for the period of the bond, and an ongoing annual 1% income tax.
According to the resolution to proceed, the bond issue “shall bear interest at the estimated rate of 4.90% per annum” and the property tax levy “amounts to $277 for each $100,000 of the county auditor’s appraised value” annually.
If approved by voters, the project will qualify for a 27% rebate from the Ohio Facilities Construction Commission in the future. According to district estimates reported by the News in the past, the rebate would be received by the district about nine years after construction begins, with that rebate likely resulting in a reduction of tax millage for local taxpayers upon its receipt.
District Treasurer Jacob McGrath said during the meeting that, if the levy passes at the polls, the district will aim for a “phased-in” collection of the 7.9 property tax millage to coincide with the 2027 expiration of a facilities bond issue passed in 2000; district taxpayers are currently paying 1.75 mills annually for that previously passed levy.
“We’re not going to collect the full 7.9 [mills] on [the upcoming levy] until we’re done paying off our old debt, and then we’ll phase it in,” McGrath said.
The board also unanimously approved a resolution to proceed with renewing a 1.2-mill, five-year permanent improvement levy for the district. If approved by voters for renewal, the permanent improvement levy will maintain, not raise, the current tax liability for local residents.
Later in the meeting, the board approved an agreement to contract Ruetschle Architects for additional services to the district. Ruetschle Architects had previously been contracted to guide the board and Facilities Committee through the process of creating and evaluating potential plans for upgrading school facilities, with that contract ending last month.
According to the approved proposal, the additional services will include working with school principals and district leadership on “developing conceptual floor plans/site plans to support the Program Requirements for the 5–12 [middle and high school] project and the PK–4 Mills Lawn project.” The cost for the services will “not exceed $15,000 and will be billed on a monthly basis as services are rendered.”
Holden said architect Mike Ruetschle, who has worked closely with the district on developing a potential facilities upgrade plan since March 2022, will prepare a “conceptual drawing” of what the project might look like.
“So conceptually, we know … what might that look like in terms of how we would do entrances for grades 5–8 or 9–12, things like that — kind of broad brush things … so that people can start getting in their head some picture,” Holden said.
“There’s a lot of questions I think people will have,” board member Judith Hempfling said in response. “If it’s fleshed out a little bit more, that’ll be helpful to all of us.”
Looking ahead toward the November vote, board Vice President Dorothée Bouquet reminded her fellow board members of advice received in January from the district’s legal counsel, Bricker & Eckler, about exercising caution when communicating with the public about upcoming levies. Under Ohio law, district employees must not be compensated for time they spend on any activity that might influence the outcome of an election, including at public meetings.
“Our behavior as board members will be under different scrutiny,” Bouquet said. “We’ll have to be very careful about any statements made publicly here or elsewhere.”
Responding to Bouquet’s concern, board member Luisa Bieri Rios asked for a verbal agreement from her fellow board members that any letters from the school board to be published in the News or other publications be agreed upon by all members and be approved by the board president before they’re submitted. Though Hempfling asked that the board obtain guidance from legal counsel about what board members can and can’t communicate in a published letter, she, along with the rest of the board, agreed with the request.
“You can not, as an individual, speak for the whole school board, and nobody intends to do that, I don’t expect — including myself,” Hempfling said.
Semester exams implemented
The board approved several changes to the McKinney Middle School and Yellow Springs High School Student Handbook; among those changes are added guidelines on semester exams, which will be implemented at the high school in the 2023–24 school year.
Until now, YSHS educators have only given semester exams when required for an Advanced Placement, or AP, course; mandatory semester exams for all courses are a new requirement. Holden said the change was prompted by feedback from students, and is intended to prepare students for the rigors of college exams.
“In talking to seniors … they’re really recognizing that they are perhaps not having the same preparatory experiences as others are,” Holden said.
According to the updated handbook, exams will be administered in every course near the conclusion of each semester and will be worth 20% of a semester grade. Students who complete AP exams will not be required to take a second semester exam. Some exam exemptions will be granted to students each semester: Those with a perfect attendance record with no tardies will be eligible for two exam exemptions; a student who maintains 98% attendance throughout the semester will be eligible for one exam exemption. Exemptions may only be used in courses where students have earned an A for both quarters.
Bieri Rios urged district administrators to “be very mindful of the student experience [and] anxiety” when considering how best to implement semester exams.
“How do we [increase testing] in a way that feels supportive of the college preparatory experience, but that’s also really taking into consideration the number of testing days?” Bieri Rios asked. “In my experience, it feels like a lot.”
“Your concerns are noted,” Holden said. “I just want you to understand why I’ve made this recommendation, because I think it’s a little bit of malpractice when we send kids out of here without … having experienced any course exams, and they leave us and go to a post-secondary environment where that’s typical. And I want them to be able to say, ‘Yes, Yellow Springs prepared me for this.’”
The next meeting of the school board will be Thursday, Aug. 10, beginning at 6 p.m., in the YSHS Media Center.