Ontario board slated to take action on closing Cairo and Pioneer schools in February

The Ontario School Board is slated to decide on shuttering two rural elementary schools at its Feb. 26 meeting as the district moves forward with a plan to put students in each grade into the same building.

In what was the most thorough public explanation of the changes, Nikki Albisu, superintendent of the Ontario School District, presented a plan to put students in each grade into the same building instead of spread across five schools.

The plan would move over 200 students attending Pioneer and Cairo Elementary Schools by the end of the school year.

Albisu has steadfastly refused since November to respond to questions from the Enterprise about the plan and her sometimes contradictory statements.

But she advised the board at its Jan. 22 meeting of her plan to put kindergarten and grade 1 students at May Roberts, grades 2 and 3 at Aiken and 4 and 5 at Alameda.

Albisu said Jenny Dayton, the current principal at Cairo, would become principal at May Roberts. The assistant principal at May Roberts would be Kevin Capps, who is currently at Aiken.

Tobey Huddleston will remain the principal at Aiken and Andrea Buchholz and Lucas Tackman, the principal and assistant, will remain at Alameda. Albisu did not discuss other administrator assignments, including what would become of the principals now at May Roberts and Pioneer.

Taryn Smith, district communications manager, did not immediately provide the full details of administrator assignments that Albisu told the board she had recently planned.

“They just found out,” she said. She said she had “a lot of sleepless nights” figuring out where she would transfer administrators.

Regarding teacher assignments, the plan is less clear. Albisu said teachers were anxious to know where they would be heading in the next school year, but she told the board assigning teachers to is the “next step.”

She told the board the educators would be asked what grade levels they would prefer to teach in a “staff placement preference survey.” Albisu said she wants to have staff assignments out by April, “if not earlier.” Teachers were polled in November about the elementary reconfiguration.

Albisu said the district wants teachers to move to new classrooms in May to be ready for summer classes starting in June.

During the board meeting, Albisu fended off criticism about the district’s lack of transparency in planning the changes. Albisu has made conflicting statements about those plans in recent months and her team been unable to produce records documenting when the district began discussing the elementary reconfiguration.

She repeated her earlier defense that the district began considering the shift in 2008, and by 2016 and that administrators looked more closely at the research. She said the district held several public meetings in 2019. Those plans did not include closing two schools.

She explained that the pandemic disrupted planning and brought Covid relief funding for the sixth-grade building.

She and her team brought the plan back to life last September in a briefing for the school board and got the members “blessing” to get a consensus from the community.

Albisu said the district held one community meeting in November but did not schedule any further meetings from there because of the holidays.

She said that if school administrators were “sneaky,” they could have held the meetings during the holiday break.

Albisu explains her process is to take major changes to the board first, then the staff and from there, parents and the community more broadly.

She said it was hard to have her integrity questioned and to be called “unethical” for making what she believes are the right choices for students.

She told the board that she has been unable to produce records of the elementary reconfiguration because the district is still creating such records. Albisu’s team last month provided the Enterprise just 47 pages of records related to the school plan but no memo or email among key leaders about the intent to close Pioneer and Cairo.

She told the board that she and her staff wanted to tell the community directly about the plan.

“We’d love to tell our story first,” she said.

The district did so in a lengthy posting on its website last fall, when the school closures were revealed. District officials said, however, they had no record of who wrote that posting, who approved it or when it was made public.

Smith told the board that the plan rolled out to the community faster than it’s “genuine communication rollout” and they could have done things differently.

“We were playing a little bit of catch up,” she said, “trying to get staff informed at the same time as parents.”

Albisu said it’s hard to know the “perfect communication plan” around the elementary reconfiguration. 

She said the district was just not ready in November to discuss its plans with the community despite the website posting. Albisu and principals at Pioneer and Cairo didn’t respond to Enterprise questions last November about that posting.

Board members sat largely quiet during the discussion. Although, board member Blanca Rodriguez said she is listening to the “professionals” and “what’s best for kids.” For his part, Matt Stringer said he is excited about the elementary reconfiguration, at the same time, he wanted to understand the source of the pushback. Is it that Cairo and Pioneer are closing? Is it that parents would now have to drive to more than one school to pick up and drop off their kids?

Albisu said the concerns are different for everyone. Some parents, she said, have expressed worries about having kids at up to three different schools. However, she said the district has buses that pick up and drop at the three elementary schools.

Regarding closing schools, Albisu said the district has approached the shift in the elementary schools from the standpoint of “reconfiguration” and not from closing schools.

Stringer said the district should talk more about the benefits of consolidating the schools and all that comes with the shift from class sizes to more efficient transportation and how putting kids in the same grade in one building leads to better outcomes for children.

“I know these children are going to be successful,” Stringer said.

Albisu maintained that Pioneer and Cairo are not closing. She said she has been “stubborn” when asked about the schools being shuttered because the district is “repurposing” them once it completes the elementary reconfiguration.

“We’re gonna push pause on those two buildings for now to get this up and running and do it right,” Albisu said, “And then we’re going to come back with the community and say, ‘what can we do.'” The district, she said, has some “really good ideas.”

Albisu emphasized the district would not sell the buildings. However, Albisu told the board in September that there was a potential to sell or lease the buildings.

“If we ever thought about selling a building or leasing a building, we would want to make sure this is working for us,” she said. “And those are decisions that would come later as a group and as a board.”


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