Dayton schools to spend $60 million on core problems

Teacher pay, busing, mental health care and building maintenance targeted with extra funds

With the possibility of state takeover looming, the Dayton Public Schools board of education has unveiled a plan to spend more than $60 million over the next three years in an all-out effort to improve student performance.

The plan is aimed at what school leaders say are its most pressing needs:

- Bringing back high school busing to improve dismal student attendance figures

- Pay raises to better attract and retain quality staff

- Mental health counselors to assist students struggling with trauma

- Repairs and maintenance to buildings ignored the past 10 years

- Establishing true Montessori and STEM schools

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“It’s a whole package. It doesn’t focus just on one aspect of what we need to do differently,” said schools Superintendent Elizabeth Lolli in an interview last week with the Dayton Daily News.

The district’s school board approved the spending plan on May 28, more than a year after voters elected a new majority to the board with the promise of improving a district that ranks dead last in state test scores.

“We will see progress,” said school board President William Harris. “If we meet these goals, I think we will achieve what we need to achieve in the district. It’s a start – we’ve got a long way to go. I’m just so happy that our board is prioritizing what’s critically important for our students and parents.”

The cost of the plan has fluctuated in board discussions and interviews. It was presented as costing $26 million in Year 1. The board members however were given documents that showed the costs added up to $30 million the first year. Lolli then provided numbers that ranged from $66 million to $94 million over three years.

Some calculations include $10 million for repairs to Welcome Stadium, though that could change after district officials review a consultant’s report on what the structure needs.

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School district treasurer Hiwot Abraha said Friday the plan approved by the board called for $30 million in spending next year — including Welcome Stadium — then $19.5 million in 2020 and $19.6 million in 2021.

Abraha told board members most of this money will come from the district's reserves. The Dayton Daily News in March revealed that after years of conservative spending, Dayton Public Schools was projected to have a nearly $100 million surplus — more than half of which is available to spend — and board members had reached no consensus on what to do with it.

That changed with this plan, though school board member John McManus raised concerns about the cost of the plan and outsourcing busing.

High school busing

Harris said the busing contract is “the No. 1 priority.”

“If they don’t get to school, then they can’t learn, can’t pass the tests and graduate. It’s sort of a ripple effect,” he said.

Dayton high school students will ride on Greater Dayton Regional Transit Authority buses for free to get to school next year. The school board voted to contract with RTA to re-establish the so-called “Yellow Line.” The district last offered RTA transportation to high school students a decade ago.

An analysis by RTA estimates about 2,634 students will use the service on a daily basis. The service will include up to 32 buses running a fixed route in the morning and afternoon. They will pick up and drop off up students at stops near their homes, and the route will include stops at or near Dayton high schools as well as charter and parochial schools.

The district will pay RTA $4.1 million next year and $3.2 million each year after that.

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Lolli said she hopes bringing back busing will increase attendance rates at the high schools significantly. An analysis released in February found absenteeism problems are crippling students’ ability to learn; of Dayton’s six high schools, four had more than 40 percent of their students absent more than 10 percent of the school year. Only Ponitz Career Technology Center and Stivers High School have chronic absentee levels below 40 percent.

Lolli said a major reason for that absenteeism was children had to pay bus fare to get to school.

“They just don’t have that kind of money,“ she said. “We’re hoping by us providing this that burden will be taken away from those families that can’t afford that and our students will come to school.”

“It’s not that our students don’t want to be in school, it’s just sometimes they can’t get to school.”

School board member John McManus opposed outsourcing high school busing because, he said, it would go back on a commitment he made to union leaders who helped him and other board members get elected.

Lolli said her administration estimated it would cost more than an additional $6 million a year for the district to bus high schoolers by hiring drivers and buying buses instead of contracting with RTA.

The RTA has been setting aside buses for some time with the expectation the yellow line would be restored.

“We’ve been preparing for this,” said RTA CEO Mark Donaghy.

He said the extra cost in the first year in the contract is to install cameras and other necessary equipment in the 32 buses they will use. They are also hiring about two dozen new drivers and a supervisor for this program, he said.

Donaghy said RTA will continue to offer discounted student bus passes as well.

Teacher pay

As part of its plan, the school board approved a “salary adjustment for teachers,” that will cost the district an extra $4.5 million per year. Lolli said it is aimed at making salaries more competitive with other districts, to help Dayton schools recruit and retain talented teachers. In Ohio, each school district negotiates teacher pay with its teachers union, and salary is based on education level and years of experience.

“When you have 35 years (teaching), and you’re sitting at $63,000 with a bachelor’s degree, that’s embarrassing,” Lolli said. “Why would you stay? … We needed to do something differently, so we raised that.”

In the just completed school year, that Dayton teacher with more than 30 years experience and a bachelor’s degree would have earned $63,502. A similar teacher locally would have made $75,139 in Huber Heights and $85,096 in Beavercreek. In other urban districts, a similar teacher would have earned $68,180 in Toledo and $82,091 in Cincinnati.

Lolli would not release the new salary schedules Wednesday. The school board is slated to vote on the proposal later this month. This newspaper filed a public records request for those documents Thursday.

Lolli did say the district’s new base starting salary would be about $44,000, which would be near the top of local districts. She said the very peak of the new salary scale – for a teacher with a PhD and 20-plus years – would be $84,000. That’s a $10,000 increase for Dayton schools, but still well below many local suburban districts.

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Later this month, the school board is expected to ratify a two-year contract extension with the teachers union through 2021-22. It would lock in 3 percent pay raises each of those years, plus the “salary adjustment.” That $4.5 million adjustment means each teacher will jump ahead two rungs on the “experience step” scale, to make up for past “step” freezes, and two new, larger steps will be added for teachers at 19 and 20 years of experience.

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“With the change in our ability to recruit, with higher salaries for both teachers and principals, we’re pretty sure that we’re going to make a major difference in how we do instruction in our classrooms,” Lolli said.

Teachers union President David Romick said there are teachers who will never consider Dayton Public Schools regardless of the pay. But for many others, the salary bump may help prevent them from leaving for higher-paying suburbs after a few years.

“For people who are currently teaching in Dayton, I think it will help a lot,” Romick said. “To work in Dayton or any urban district, you have to have a draw to that. The factors you mentioned – the test scores, and the discipline and safety – go with working in an urban district. If you’re drawn to working in an urban district, you accept those things as part of the package.”

Lolli said the salary adjustment “helps people who are committed to urban education stay here.”

Facilities spending

Dayton plans to spend $51 million over the next three years on repairs and maintenance of school buildings that are between seven and 13 years old. The district’s school buildings were replaced int he 2000s through a comprehensive rebuilding effort funded by both the state of Ohio and Dayton schools.

“For several years before I got here, and before Dr. Burton was in charge of operations, preventative maintenance was not done. It was reactionary – just fix what we needed to fix,” Lolli said. “You cannot maintain a building that’s used every day – and some of our buildings are almost 24-7-365 – and keep them up to par without some type of preventative maintenance plan in place.”

Associate Superintendent Shelia Burton last month identified three areas as having the greatest need and highest costs — roofs, parking lots and HVAC systems. But she did not specify at which schools those items were needed. The spending plan the school board approved May 28 said the majority of the facilities money would be spent on “high-priority items” that were recommended in a review by a consultant, Four Seasons Environmental, Inc.

That 209-page report – a December update of a report from years earlier – at one point lists a “total projected maintenance budget” of nearly $17 million. The report offers specific dollar figures that every school building will need for “preventive maintenance, unplanned repair, planned repair and capital renewal” in categories ranging from HVAC to plumbing to “building envelope.”

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But the report does not spell out specifics of which buildings need new roofs or new boilers or parking lots. It does not say whether roofs or long-term assets are still covered by warranties. And Four Seasons says in the report that it produced its projected maintenance budget by inputting key information about Dayton school facilities — such as square-footage and types of mechanical equipment for each building – into the Ohio School Facilities Commission’s “web tool” automated calculator.

“You need about $17 million a year to cover the things that haven’t been done over the past 10 years,” Lolli said. “We had $7 million in the budget, so we add an additional $10 million to get to that number.”

The Dayton school administration plans to spend $17 million each of the next three years “to catch up,” according to Lolli, then return to the amount Four Seasons lists for preventative maintenance – which the report says is $2.72 million.

Four Seasons’ report appears to call for an every-year budget expense of $17 million, including the hiring of more than 30 additional maintenance staff. Lolli said industry consultants often call for the hiring of many more staff than is practical. She did not say if Dayton schools would hire a certain number of additional workers.

Mental health

The plan also includes spending $882,000 a year to hire 10 new behavioral/mental health specialists to place in schools across the district. The dollar amount is based on a $65,000 starting salary plus benefits.

Lolli said the new employees will work directly with students struggling with trauma and mental health issues. This will supplement services provided under contract with agencies such as Samaritan Behavioral Health.

“They’ll provide some support services and then some recommendations for the children to have some extended services,” she said. “We have such a need. There aren’t enough support systems in place for kids.”

For example, Lolli said, she expects there will be children traumatized by the recent tornadoes that ripped through parts of the city leaving some kids terrified and homeless.

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“There are students that are going to be frightened every time there’s a thunderstorm and they’re sitting in a school building,” she said. “They’re going to need some extra support systems in place. They’re going to need some people that are experts and don’t say, ‘It’s OK, don’t worry about it, it’s just a thunderstorm.’”

Jess Davies, director of scio-emotional learning services at the Montgomery County Educational Services Center, said treating children’s mental health removes barriers children face to learning.

“Research shows over and over again academic scores will increase,” she said. “If you want to raise academic scores, you have to deal with what’s below the tip of the iceberg.”

This is particularly true, Davies said, in a district like Dayton where many children are faced with the trauma and adverse childhood experiences that accompany poverty.

“I think Dr. Lolli is right on track,” she said.

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