The decision to close two rural Ontario schools is moving ahead, shrouded in secrecy.
Plans call for some 200 students and their parents and teachers to shift to new schools at the start of the next school year. Cairo and Pioneer Schools will be shuttered as the Ontario School District changes how it educates elementary students.
Superintendent Nikki Albisu and her team have sung the praises of what the district has branded “elementary reconfiguration.”
That means putting all students in each grade into the same building instead of spread across five schools. Albisu has pitched the plan as a way to enhance teaching and provide more school activities for students.
An investigation by the Enterprise, however, established that Albisu and her team have deliberately shifted conversations away from the school closures.
Albisu wouldn’t answer the newspaper’s questions about the closures, and she instructed school executives not to respond to media questions. The principals of the two schools tagged for closure also didn’t respond.
“So what happens to other schools? We don’t know yet.”–Nikki Albisu, Ontario school superintendent in October
A.J. Sunseri, an Ontario School Board member, said it was “essential” for district leaders and board members to provide information to the community. He supports the plan, but voiced concerns about the quiet rollout.
“I do not think the OSD is doing an adequate job at informing parents,” Sunseri said last week. He urged other board members to also speak up “rather than being silent.”
The tough decision to close schools has barely left a trace in the files of the Ontario School District, according to public records requests filed by the Enterprise. The district said it had no document anywhere in the district showing how Cairo and Pioneer were targeted for closure – or who decided they would go dark.
Taryn Smith, the district’s communications director, insisted the schools weren’t really closing.
“They just won’t have students in them,” Smith explained.
The district sometime this fall posted the elementary plan to its website. Buried in the long description was word of the school closures.
“Cairo and Pioneer school facilities will not immediately be utilized for students in the reconfiguration,” according to the plan.
The source of the statement couldn’t be traced. There is no record of which district employee drafted the statement, who approved it or when it was made public, according to Smith.
Albisu and her team, though, had carefully orchestrated rolling out the elementary plan, public records show.
In most ways, the plan was not new. Albisu had been promoting such a consolidation of grades for years. That culminated in series of school meetings in 2020 to give parents a look.
Records from the time show that Albisu’s team intended to use all five grade schools. Cairo would still serve grades one through six. Pioneer would become a magnet school, providing programming to bolster science and math interests.
The pandemic and the long closure of schools halted that plan.
Last September, Albisu took steps to bring it back to life but with little notice to the community.
The school board scheduled a work session on Sept. 25 to hear about the plan.
Erin O’Hara-Rines, the Pioneer principal, typically lets her staff know of scheduled district activities. But in an email to her staff the day that the board convened, she listed a starting time at 7 p.m. – two hours later than was the actual time
According to the email traffic, she knew the board would first spend time discussing the new school plan before moving on to other topics. O’Hara-Rines was aware of that, district records show.
A teacher questioned the starting time in an email to the principal, who then acknowledged the earlier start time.
“The work session is at 5 p.m. – this is when the grade level school discussion will take place,” O’Hara-Rines wrote. “I purposely did not put this on the schedule.”
She hasn’t responded to written questions about the note. And though her school was slated for closure, school district officials said that as late as Dec. 15, there was no record that O’Hara-Rines had written about the closure in any email or memo to the superintendent, the Pioneer staff or parents.
At that September board meeting, one board member noted that Albisu’s plan would only use three of the five elementary schools. Albisu said no decision had been made about the schools.
She kept that posture a month later when she again addressed school board questions over using three schools instead of five.
“So what happens to other schools? We don’t know yet,” Albisu told the board. “We haven’t put a ton of thought into this.”
Albisu also suggested the community would have plenty of say about the plan.
“This would never be something we would just throw out and say at a public meeting this is what we’re doing, you’re going to have to live with it.”
Her team soon was planning for just such a public meeting.
They gathered on Oct. 30, mapping out a presentation for a public meeting two weeks later.
One concern as they talked was the “reaction from small school community,” according to note obtained through a public records request.
According to the notes, the district leaders wanted to spin the information it would give parents.
“It is not advisable to discuss ‘cons’ during this presentation,” the notes said. “An FAQ sheet might mitigate potential negativity.”
Ahead of the community meeting, school district teachers found a survey in their work email. They were asked how teachers should be assigned under the new plan.
The survey opened with the statement describing the new elementary plan, disclosing the closure of Pioneer and Cairo.
School district officials could produce no other record that teachers had been notified of the closure. The principals, O’Hara-Rines at Pioneer and Jenny Dayton at Cairo, had not before or since addressed the closures in any documented form, the district said.
On Nov. 6, three days after the survey went out, a teacher at Aiken Elementary School went directly to school board members with concerns.
“Unless you’re staff or have attended the school board meetings, the community is unaware that this topic is being discussed,” the teacher wrote on Nov. 6. “I’m concerned that the school district wants to roll this out next year while the community has not been informed of any of it.”
On Nov. 9, a Thursday, schools sent home a flier with elementary students to share with their parents, announcing a community meeting at Ontario Middle School. The evening meeting was to be held the following Monday. Just hours before the meeting, the meeting was announced on the district’s Facebook page.
“Parents, staff and community are welcome to join us for an information session regarding the shift to grade level school,” the flier said.
The goal, the flier said, was “increasing student proficiency while bring unity to the community.” Nothing was said about closing schools.
Hours before the community meeting, school officials rehearsed their presentation.
According to an email, district leaders wanted to be clear with parents and others the school plan should be supported.
“Most important message for small schools is that if we believe this is a good thing for students we would not want to deny any student the opportunity,” according to one leader’s email ahead of the rehearsal. The messaging also had to get across that “an organization can only support so much change a time” and the future of small schools would be for another day.
At the Monday session, poorly attended at the middle school, Albisu opened and closed the presentation with a quote that appeared aimed any dissenting parents: “The secret of change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old, but building the new.”
A sharp-eyed parent might have caught a clue that closures were in the works as Albisu and her team went through a slide presentation. One slide, containing 195 words total, included a list showing kindergarten and first grade in one building, second and third in another, and fourth and fifth in one more.
Parents were invited to ask questions, but the demeanor of school officials was clear: This is going forward.
Albisu never told the audience directly that Pioneer and Cairo would close.
Two days later, on Nov. 15, Albisu wrote in emails to the Enterprise that the school closings should surprise no one.
“We’ve been discussing it for months,” her email said.
District officials could produce no record substantiating that.
Albisu also insisted in an email to reporters that the district was being open about its plans.
“There is NO secrecy,” she wrote to the Enterprise.
That very day, she emailed 30 principals and other district administrators.
“I’ve heard from many of you that the media has reached out for info,” she wrote. “Please do not respond at this time.”
Her directive conflicts with a school district policy established by the school board:
“Each principal is authorized to use available means to keep parents and others in the particular school’s community informed about the school’s program and activities.”
Albisu advised her leaders, “The district will prepare a response once we have spoken to the school board.”
Two weeks later, on Nov. 27, Albisu walked the school board through the elementary school plan. She sidestepped questions about school closings, saying the focus had to be on the new plan and “doing it well.”
Despite her earlier assurances to school leaders, the district has yet to produce the promised statement addressing the closures.
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