Michael D. Clark reports:
More than 1,600 students here will be part of a historic change in August after Mason school officials decided Tuesday evening to merge two schools.
The Mason school board voted unanimously to shut down Mason Heights Elementary for next school year, merging its 800 students into Western Row Elementary and the Mason Early Childhood Center.
It’s the first merger of Mason schools since the mid-20th century.
While public input was voluminous in recent weeks – more than 1,400 comments via an online survey – the major change to the Warren County district was largely decided without public contention to the idea.
Both the 45-year-old Mason Heights building and the 52-year-old Western Row school, which currently house the 11,000-student district’s second and third grades, were originally considered for closing when officials first publicly raised the possibility last month.
But Western Row’s more central location within the 25-square-mile district, combined with a slightly larger campus, easier cafeteria and playground access and a safer traffic and parking flow configuration were among the favorable factors, said Mason Superintendent Gail Kist-Kline.
Enrollment in Mason has leveled off in recent years.
“This matches our enrollment to our building capacity. And allows us to channel our resources to our students and not to another building,” said Kist-Kline. “And it does not change class size at all.”
Board member Marianne Culbertson said “we feel the decision is best for kids.”
About 490 Mason Heights second-graders will move to Mason Early Childhood Center, which opened in 2006 and now holds pre-kindergarten, kindergarten and first grade. Those grades will remain there.
Mason Heights, which is located at 200 Northcrest Drive in the northern part of the district, earned a state ranking of “Excellent” – the second highest rating – for the 2010-11 school year, as did Western Row – at 755 Western Row Road in the eastern section of the school system. The Mason Early Childhood Center earned the state’s top rating of “Excellent With Distinction” as did the entire district that year.
Both schools currently enroll about 800 students and both are below capacity.
While Mason Heights also has an annex building on its campus, it is separated by a parking lot access road, which officials saw as a possible hazard for student pedestrians.
Starting with this school year, the two schools began sharing a single principal, also a first in Mason school history.
The board took no action on staffing changes for next school year due to the merger, but is likely to consider those in March or April.
Mason Heights may be sold, officials said.
Mason, like other some other suburban districts, has cut millions of dollars from its budget in recent years, including dozens of teachers as part of last year’s personnel reductions.
Officials anticipate the merger will save about $1 million annually in operating and facility costs beginning next school year.
Mason’s yearly operating budget is $100 million.
Western Row needs about $1.4 million in restoration and renovations, said officials, but that work will be done during a five-year period.
“This decision has been data driven to maximize student learning,” said Kist-Kline.