Large crowd sees Middletown school board rebuke $10M expansion plan: ‘We all feel a little blindsided’

A superintendent’s plan to spend $10 million on expanding a Middletown School and change its academic program was unanimously rejected by the school board with some members complaining details were not shared beforehand by the school leader.

The Monday evening meeting of the Middletown Board of Education drew one of the largest crowds in recent years. Most were parents and supporters of Central Academy School and included some who criticized Superintendent Marlon Styles Jr.’s plan.

The school board’s 5-0 rejection vote was the most public rebuke of a significant Styles proposal since the board hired him in 2017.

And it came with criticism from some board members who contended details beyond the $10 million school addition didn’t include removing Central Academy’s 6th grade and changing its long-held academic program.

Board member Todd Moore described the sweeping plan, which was not listed on the board meeting agenda, as being put to the board as a “take or leave it” proposition that also lacked the traditional first public reading at a board meeting designed to initiate board and public discussion.

“There is nothing for anyone … to look at,” Moore said. “We kind of hit folks out of the blue.”

“This is not coming to us in a first read (presentation). There is a professional responsibility to meet that (school district) administrative burden. This is why we need a first read. This is why we need to do this in an orderly manner.”

Fellow board member Michelle Novak echoed some of Moore’s concerns, saying “we are committed to an inclusive process and we must include our stakeholders in decision making (and) I haven’t seen that implemented in this process.”

But Styles countered that board members were informed of various aspects of his Central Academy plan as early as September and most recently at a board meeting earlier this month.

“We have been very transparent,” Styles said.

Styles’ argument for the plan included trying to bring “equity” to the district’s other elementary schools, many of which suffer from overcrowding. Some classrooms have up to 28 students.

“How do we ensure we don’t have significant overcrowding in our district?” Styles said.

The Central Academy is unique in the Butler County school system for its multi-age, non-graded instructional program that includes project learning.

If the plan had been approved by the board the 425-student Central Academy would have seen an additional 13 classrooms built onto its existing school, which enrolls kindergarten through sixth grades at its 461 Sophia Ave. campus.

Funding for the new classrooms would have come from $10 million in savings from Middletown’s recent $96 million construction project at its high school campus that saw a new middle school built adjacent to the renovated Middletown High School.

The project would not have required the district to seek a tax levy for additional funds.

A crowd of more than 120 packed the city chambers also used by the board for its public meetings.

Central Academy parent Meagan Hurley told the board while she liked the proposed architectural designs for the $10 million expansion, she didn’t care for plans to move the school’s sixth graders to Highview Elementary and changing Central Academy’s project-based learning program to another curricula.

“We all feel a little blindsided by the introduction of the new (academic) program that we knew nothing about. We are very concerned that the (new) program was developed without input from our (teaching) staff. Central Academy has been an innovative school for 25 years,” she said.

“The sixth grade is a very important part of our multi-age classroom structure,” she said.

Fellow school parent Eric Russell complained to the board and district officials “it seems the school board is being asked to sign a blank check without many of the important details being ironed out.”

“I’m happy with project-based learning (now at Central Academy) … and I’m unwilling for my kids to be an experiment. And dropping the sixth grade is an absolute deal breaker for me and other parents,” said Russell.

Kevin Casanova said he worried about the changes proposed for the school and described them as “lacking in detail.”

“I don’t feel like I have enough information to even tell you how I feel about it,” said Casanova.

Despite the defeat of his proposal, Styles remained upbeat after the board vote saying “we are excited about finding a solution that will fit the needs of every student in our district and our job right now is to find that solution.”

“We’re continue to brain storm ideas to see if we can discover a solution … and we’ll come back to our board and public and be transparent about it,” he said.

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