RIPLEY - Nearly 50 parents, students and residents attended a recent Ripley Central School board meeting to ask questions and voice concerns regarding the possibility that students might be tuitioned to Chautauqua Lake Central School in 2013-14.
Administrators at Ripley have been examining a proposal to send students in seventh through 12th grades to Chautauqua Lake since August, when a parent-led group petitioned the board to seek a public referendum vote on the matter. The vote is expected to take place in mid-February, according to Karen Krause, Ripley superintendent. The district has discussed the matter with Chautauqua Lake, BOCES II and financial advisers, said Louann Bahgat, school business administrator.
"The determining factor will be the effect it would have on the tax base and the taxpayer," she said. "We are trying to figure out if we send grades seven through 12 elsewhere, how much we can afford to pay so that it does not negatively affect our tax base. It's not an easy process to develop. ... We just can't come up with a number and say let's go with that."
Ripley's enrollment has declined steadily in recent years, forcing it to look at other options to continue to survive. The possibility to form a regional high school with Brocton, Westfield and Chautauqua was dashed when the state Assembly failed to vote on the necessary legislation before its regular session closed in June. Ripley has 130 students in seventh through 12th grades. Six students attend Chautauqua Lake as part of a pilot program.
Before taking public comments, Robert Bentley, board president, stressed nothing has been decided.
"The board is not moving anywhere on tuitioning at this point. ... The vote is what's going to take us forward," he said. "This board looks at this as an opportunity for this community. It also looks at it as a responsibility to the students to provide a better way of educating them."
Those who attended Thursday's meeting raised several concerns. Christine Houle asked if the board had considered sending all of Ripley's students and closing the school completely.
She noted she wants to keep the school open, but wonders if the district could afford to send children in seventh through 12th grades to Chautauqua and still afford to keep the building open.
Bentley answered there has been no discussion of sending students in kindergarten through sixth grade.
"We want to keep the little kids at home," he said.
Several parents expressed concerns the study was taking too long and wanted to know how soon a vote could be taken.
"What is the next step, how soon can that happen and what can we as parents do to expedite it?" David Adam asked.
Krause said the district hopes to have the financial information gathered and reviewed by auditors in January.
"All taxpayers need to vote," she said. "We need to know how it will affect each taxpayer."
David Hart also expressed frustration that the process was moving too slowly.
"Where is the cut-off point when you say it's no longer financially feasible to run this school," he asked. "In the future I see this school shrinking and shrinking."
Bentley said the process takes, "patience and participation." He noted the district has looked into several mergers and annexations in the past two decades only to have those possibilities remain unrealized.
"It can be frustrating, but we need to go through the process to let the community know what it needs to know," Bentley said.
Wanda Bentley of Ripley asked how long a bus ride the students would be facing and how could the board guarantee a tax break for Ripley residents if students are tuitioned to Chautauqua.
Krause said the ride could take up to an hour, and a tax break could not be guaranteed until all the numbers were worked out.
Wendy Graham said no matter what one's position on tuitioning, everyone needs to realize they are on the same side.
"I want everybody to remember there isn't anyone here or in this district that doesn't want what's best for our kids," she said.
STUDENT, TEACHER THOUGHTS
Ripley junior Allison Fischer asked if the board had polled the students to see how they felt.
"I know dozens of kids who do not want to go to Chautauqua Lake and would rather go to Sherman," she said.
Bentley answered the district has not polled the students, but they have met with administrators from Sherman Central School and they are not offering to receive students.
Furthermore, Ripley would end up paying more if students could choose the school they want to attend.
"I don't believe we want to entertain the idea of splitting the kids up as we would get into comparing educational opportunities," he said. "There is a lot more bargaining power with sending 130 students than 60 or 70."
Jeremy Wilson, a Ripley science teacher, responded he felt the students deserved to have their voice heard.
"Our seventh through 12th grade students are not dumb, they are just young. ... They ought to have the question put to them, 'Where do they want to go?'."
Ripley teacher Rhonda Thompson stated she was not in favor of tuitioning students.
"We have poured our heart and our soul into every one of our students and we are told that we are not giving the students a good education," she said. "This is very hurtful."
Bentley replied the board is in complete support of Ripley's teachers and has publicly stated this support several times. He noted he fought for a merger with Westfield that would have saved the teachers' jobs.
"I am a fan of the teachers," he said.
In other business, the board approved a contract with Eagle Radio Technologies of Jamestown to replace and update the district's radio equipment to comply with a Federal Communications Committee mandate.
The mandate requires all private land mobile licensees switch to narrow band technologies.
Rhonda Nelson, Ripley's head bus driver, told the board the mandate would require the district to purchase a new base station, new controls and new or re-programmed hand-held radios for its buses. The transition will cost the district $12,959, which will come from the undesignated fund balance.
If the district fails to comply by Jan. 1, 2013, it could be fined anywhere from $16,000 to $112,500.