State report backs families trying to flee local school district

A group of families trying to get their land legally switched from the tiny, struggling Jefferson Twp. school district to Valley View schools got a key victory when a state hearing officer recommended the transfer be approved.

The document from hearing officer Melissa Riggins said the Jefferson Twp. district “has been in overall disorder for many years,” adding “the educational opportunities available to the students in the territory, especially the vocational agriculture classes and programs, will be vastly improved by the granting of this transfer.”

JUNE STORY: Residents petition to leave Jefferson Twp. schools

The hearing officer’s recommendation made last week is not final. The state school board must review Riggins’ report and vote to approve or reject the transfer. But attorneys for both sides plan to file objections or responses, meaning the process could drag out beyond the state board’s Feb. 11-12 meeting.

Chris Conard and Merle Wilberding, attorneys for the residents, said their clients were “encouraged” by the recommendation, are committed to continuing the process and “feel strongly” that the evidence supports the transfer.

“The petitioners identify themselves as Germantown residents whose families for decades have been part of the Germantown and Valley View communities,” the attorneys said in a statement Wednesday. “Moreover, the Valley View School District offers educational and extracurricular opportunities that are an integral part of their rural community, and those opportunities are not offered in the Jefferson Township school district.”

OCTOBER: Jefferson schools understaffed, struggling

The territory in question is nine square miles in the southwest part of the Jefferson school district, partially bordering the Valley View district. It is bigger than the entire city of West Carrollton, but sparsely populated, as it is largely farmland.

Tabitha Justice, attorney for Jefferson schools, said there are few students in the area. She has questioned the motives of some of the families, pointing out that some who “feel part of Germantown” are actually so close to Jefferson High School that they can see it from their driveway.

Justice pointed to testimony from one of the petitioners who said she preferred dissolving the entire Jefferson school district and parceling out the students by geography to the nearest remaining school district. In a fairly racially segregated district, that could mean most white students go one way to higher-performing Valley View, and most black students go the other way to Trotwood or Dayton, which have been at risk of state takeover.

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This summer, members of the petitioning group said the issue is not race, but better educational opportunities for their kids.

In hearings held Sept. 25 and Dec. 19, the families said they had been dissatisfied with Jefferson schools for years, citing poor state report card grades, little improvement over time and a lack of agricultural classes and 4H programs in a community where those things are important, according to Riggins’ report.

They said they identify more with the agricultural focus of the Valley View community, and go to Germantown for everything from groceries to children’s sports activities.

Justice said Jefferson believes the hearing officer’s recommendation “was incorrect on a number of grounds,” adding they hope the state school board will “look closely at the evidence and the circumstances and come to a different conclusion.”

2017 STORY: Valley View in contentious fight over bond for new schools

Riggins’ report said Jefferson presented “no testimony or data” on key issues such as the district’s expected loss of $456,000 in tax revenue, how that would affect Jefferson’s ability to educate, and how it would affect the school’s College Credit Plus program, which Jefferson officials said might be cut if the transfer went through.

Justice plainly disagreed.

“The district presented testimony from the school treasurer and the superintendent as to the amount of tax revenue that would be lost and the impact it would have on the district’s programming,” Justice said. “The petitioners never disputed those figures. Yet, the hearing officer appears to have disregarded the testimony of the district administrators, for what reason I cannot explain.”

EDUCATION: How did your district do on the state report card?

Valley View schools Superintendent Ben Richards said his district has a vested interest in the matter but has not taken any position for or against the transfer. He acknowledged a transfer could bring more students and more tax revenue, but cautioned that could be far off, as Jefferson can appeal in court if the state board OK’s the move. He said Valley View has existing financial issues, and is planning cuts and a May school levy to deal with those factors, not hypotheticals.

“We would have to look at things like special education, transportation, what grades the kids are in … and how does that affect our staffing?” Richards said of an eventual transfer. “But we’re waiting because our job is to make sure we educate the kids in Valley View right now to the best of our ability.”

SUMMER: Jefferson schools oust both principals; parents upset

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