Just-finished school year a bumpy one due to COVID-19, finances, board battles

For Butler County's school systems the just-completed school year was a bumpy and sometimes contentious one but overall an improvement compared to the pandemic-impacted two previous school years, say local district officials. For Lakota Schools, 2022 started out with smiles but soon its governing board became embattled largely due to first-year member Darbi Boddy, fourth from the left and pictured here at a board swearing in of a fellow member. (File Photo\Journal-News)

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For Butler County's school systems the just-completed school year was a bumpy and sometimes contentious one but overall an improvement compared to the pandemic-impacted two previous school years, say local district officials. For Lakota Schools, 2022 started out with smiles but soon its governing board became embattled largely due to first-year member Darbi Boddy, fourth from the left and pictured here at a board swearing in of a fellow member. (File Photo\Journal-News)

As area schools now begin to close down for summer break they are doing so looking back on the school year with mixed emotions and hopes of a return soon to more normalcy as the pandemic appears, in some ways, to be fading.

While this current school year wasn’t the COVID-19 rollercoaster of the last third of 2020, and most of the 2020-2021 school calendar, the just-completed class year was still greatly impacted by concerns and controversies from the on-going pandemic in its first half.

But some major issues faded in the past school year, including overly long quarantine requirements for students and staffs and public contentiousness over masks, which flared as a major battle front the previous year.

Still, said Fairfield Superintendent Billy Smith, teachers and school support staffers worked hard to start closing the learning gaps caused by the historic interruptions caused by COVID-19 during the previous two school years.

“At the beginning of the school year, we were very intentional about our focus on teaching and learning,” said Smith, who leads the 10,000-student district that draws enrollment from Fairfield City and Fairfield Twp.

“For the past two years, we focused a lot on the pandemic because we didn’t have a choice.”

“But during the school year, I believe that our staff members did an excellent job managing the pandemic. However, our focus was truly on closing what we have been calling the COVID (learning) gap and providing support to our students and staff as we transitioned back to a normal school year,” he said.

A problem that plagued all area schools was the continuation of a historic shortage of substitute teachers, which at times was so wide-spread it forced the closing of some schools, including the 9,000-student Hamilton Schools, for a few days.

ExploreMore classroom subs available, but candidates still down from pre-COVID in Butler County

And the school year was bumpier for some Butler County school districts more than others.

Lakota Schools saw an extraordinary series of events largely centering on first-year Board of Education member Darbi Boddy.

Boddy, who ran with fellow first-time school board member Isaac Adi in the fall, quickly began to draw wide attention – and eventual distancing from Adi - after she launched a series of accusations over the course of a number of Lakota school board meetings including allegations of Critical Race Theory (CRT) being taught in Butler County’s largest school system.

ExploreLakota board members, once campaign partners, now in social media fight

Lakota officials have repeatedly denied CRT is taught to students.

Moreover, Boddy also sharply criticized Lakota district administration officials – including Superintendent Matt Miller – and was eventually censured by her fellow board members in April and also asked by them to resign from the board, which she has refused.

ExploreLakota Schools board censures, calls for resignation of member

Boddy then clashed with her colleagues and district officials after her April visit to two Lakota school buildings, which involved her – according to school officials – ignoring visitor protocols and walking hallways unescorted.

ExploreLakota Schools issue no-trespassing notice to board member who visited buildings

Lakota’s 24 school buildings, which house 17,000 students, also returned to prominence this school year as the district revives public discussions and formulates plans on how to fund the replacement, renovation and modernization of some of its aging schools.

Funding also became a prominent community issue for other school districts, including Madison Schools, which saw a proposed income tax defeated by wide margin in May’s election.

ExploreTwin ballot defeats: Voters reject both Madison Schools’ tax and local fire, EMS levy

Other area schools whose officials said projected budget deficits will force them to the ballot in August include Ross Schools.

Officials there and in Talawanda Schools, cite lagging state school funding and higher operating costs as prime reasons for having to ask their local taxpayers for more money.

But overall, compared to the end of the past two school years awash in pandemic dilemmas, the completion of this school year is closer to the traditional normal for Butler County school systems, said Smith, who remains optimistic the worse days of COVID-19′s impact on classrooms is over.

“I couldn’t be more excited about the start of the best school year ever on Tuesday, August 16. In the end, our goal for next year is to make it better than this year,” said Smith.

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