Ontario board approves plan to mothball Cairo and Pioneer rural schools

ONTARIO – The Ontario School Board has approved a plan to close a pair of rural elementary schools next year as the district moves to put students in each grade into the same building.

In a 4-1 vote on Monday, Feb. 26, board members voted to approve “grade-based” schools, a plan that mothballs Cairo and Pioneer Elementary Schools at the end of the school year. 

Board member A.J. Sunseri was the lone dissenting vote, while Matt Stringer, Mike Blackabee, Blanca Rodriguez and chair Bret Uptmor voted to approve the plan. 

Under the plan pushed by Nikki Albisu, superintendent of the Ontario School District, students in the same grade will be in the same building instead of spread across five schools. 

The plan moves over 200 students attending Pioneer, built in 1896, and Cairo Elementary Schools, established in 1957.

Erin O’Hara-Rines, Pioneer principal, told the board that parents at Pioneer have been invested in the school and the people in the area have seen the elementary school as the “center of the community.”

O’Hara-Rines said parents who attended the series of parent information meetings told her that parents are concerned about the future of the school.

Shelby Uhlman, a parent with a child at Pioneer, said she and her husband bought a home near Pioneer so their children could have a rural education experience. Uhlman said her older kids who are now in the district’s middle and high school went to Pioneer, as did her husband and his parents and grandparents.

Uhlman said the district left parents in the dark about its plans to shutter the schools and did not consider their input. Instead, administrators did it under the banner of “we know what’s best for kids.”

Sunseri, who resigned from the board a few weeks ago due to becoming a reporter at the Argus Observer, said in an interview on Tuesday, Feb. 27, that keeping the parents out of the process was one of the primary reasons he voted against the plan. He said he didn’t believe the district would ever get support for a bond in the rural community near Pioneer after the way Albisu and her team went about moving forward with the grade-based school plan.

Albisu and her team have fended off criticism over a lack of transparency about the plan. The superintendent has made contradictory statements in her efforts to explain the plan. In January, she told board members that it has been hard to be labeled as “unethical” when all she wants is “what’s best for kids.” Nonetheless, she said that she and her team could not document their work because they are figuring out the plan as they go along.

Uhlman in her written testimony asked why the board voted on a plan that, according to Albisu, was still being created as she and her team went along. She wanted to know how the board could vote on a plan that could not be substantiated with records. 

After the board vote, she asked why administrators and the board did not seek parent feedback earlier. None of the board members nor Albisu addressed Uhlman directly but instead told her Albisu would follow up with her. Uhlman said Tuesday that Albisu had reached out to her.

Under the new plan, kindergarten and grade 1 students will be at May Roberts next year, grades 2 and 3 at Aiken and 4 and 5 at Alameda. 

During the board’s work session, Albisu asked principals from the district’s five elementary schools to update the board on the parent meetings held the past month at each of the schools. 

Andrea Buchholz, Alameda principal, told the board that parents meeting on her campus were concerned about the district’s transparency. She told the board she and her staff told parents all they knew about the plan and that the reason the schools were holding the meetings was to make parents aware of the grade-based school plan.

Buchholz and the other principals said the other concern parents shared was transportation. Without going into detail, Albisu said in the next school year, the district will bus all students to school. She said the bus routes would be established this spring after parents enroll their children in school for the next year.

Albisu said with two fewer schools to serve, the district would be in a better position to carry this out. She said she had already ordered signs from Ontario to designate bus stops. Additionally, the schools would have staggered start times to accommodate parents with children at multiple schools.

Questions remain about the district’s plans for the two rural schools. Albisu said the district is focused on carrying out its plans to consolidate the schools and has no plans for the two buildings. Nonetheless, she said a “rumor” had been swirling the district had “already engaged in conversations with people” about the buildings. She said it was “absolutely, positively, not true.” 

“We haven’t talked to anyone,” she said. 

However, she said she recommended a committee of district staff and citizens reach out to the public for ideas on what to do with the schools. 

Ahead of the Monday vote, Albisu told the board she and her team surveyed educators about teaching preferences. According to the district’s plan, teachers will get their school assignments by April. Another survey will be sent to certified staff, such as instructional assistants and office staff, within the week, according to Albisu.

Tuesday’s vote to move forward with grade-based schools puts into place a plan Albisu and her team have been pushing for years. Sometime in the fall, the district posted the plan to its website. Buried in the text, the district wrote that it planned to close Pioneer and Cairo schools at the end of the school year.

In November, the district held a hastily scheduled, poorly attended parent information meeting intended to roll out details of the new plan. Albisu and her team didn’t directly mention closing Pioneer and Cairo but instead said the plan utilized only three schools.

She said enrollment at Cairo and Pioneer never recovered after Covid. 

According to Buchholz, parents wondered if the district was attempting to “push something through that hasn’t been well thought out.” Buchholz told the board she and her staff explained to parents they were there to answer questions and share “what we know.” 

Uptmor read a common concern among parents submitted to the board ahead of the Monday meeting that echoed Uhlman’s, which was the district had not shared research substantiating the district’s claims that the plan would yield positive outcomes. 

Albisu said during the Monday meeting that back in 2016 the district gathered a “bunch of research.” 

Albisu said Monday that the research she has shared about grade-based schools says “there’s nothing that says it’s necessarily bad, I guess.” 

Albisu asked Buchholz to comment on research she had seen. Buchholz then cited a recent study that found grade-based schools improve teacher instruction and student outcomes. 

Board members largely stayed quiet during the discussion. Stringer said he appreciated the research shared that “substantiated in support” of grade-based schools. Stringer did not cite specific research, nor was any study provided to parents. 

Shelby Uhlman, a parent of a child at Pioneer Elementary School, one of two rural schools set to close next year after a 4-1 vote by the Ontario School Board, addressed the board Monday, Feb. 26, during the public comment section of the meeting. Uhlman asked board members and administrators why parents were mainly left in the dark about the district’s plan to close the schools. (Special to the Enterprise/ANGIE SILLONIS)
Matt Stinger, an Ontario School Board member, during the public comment period of the Monday, Feb. 26 board meeting, where he joined three other members in voting to close two rural Ontario schools. (Special to the Enterprise/ANGIE SILLONIS)
Blanca Rodriguez, an Ontario School Board member, listens to public testimony Monday, Feb. 26, after voting to shutter a pair of Ontario rural elementary schools Monday, Feb. 26. In previous meetings ahead of her Monday vote, Rodriguez had said she would “listen to the professionals and do what’s best for kids.” (Special to the Enterprise/ANGIE SILLONIS)
Mike Blackabee, an Ontario School Board member, listens to public comment Monday, Feb. 26, after joining three other members in voting to approve a plan that will close two Ontario rural schools. Leading up to his Monday vote, Blackabee previously denied the district’s intentions to close the schools despite the district’s website listing that Cairo and Pioneer schools were to close and threatened to sue the Enterprise if his name was published in any article related to the district’s planned closure of the schools. (Special to the Enterprise/ANGIE SILLONIS)
Bret Uptmor, chair of the Ontario School Board, listens to public comment Monday, Feb. 26, during the board’s regular meeting after he joined three other members in voting to approve a plan to mothball two Ontario rural elementary schools. (Special to the Enterprise/ANGIE SILLONIS)
A.J. Sunseri, an Ontario School Board member, listens to public testimony Monday, Feb. 26, during the board regular, where he was the lone dissenting vote on a plan that will close two Ontario rural elementary schools. Sunseri said the district had not been transparent with parents about its intentions to close Pioneer and Cairo schools. (Special to the Enterprise/ANGIE SILLONIS)

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