Michael D. Clark reports:
Last summer when Gail Kist-Kline took over the helm of the top-performing Mason Schools, the district was embarking on rough waters.
Mason’s extraordinary streak of winning tax levies – unbroken since 1970 – had ended in voter rejection eight months earlier and, for the first time in more than a decade, Mason’s record-breaking enrollment jumps had flattened.
To balance its budget in recent years, millions of dollars in historically deep personnel and program cuts had shrunk one of Ohio’s top-10 academically performing school systems.
The challenges for Kist-Kline were just the beginning.
In October, Mason Board of Education member John Odell died unexpectedly.
A few months later, she oversaw the first school consolidation in Mason’s history – the merger of Mason Heights Elementary with two other schools – affecting more than 1,600 students.
“The loss of a board member was profound and personally a challenge for all us that was not even on the same level of anything else,” says Kist-Kline of Odell’s rapid decline and death from cancer.
Thanks in part to another round of cuts in April – $1.6 million and 40 teacher and school staffer positions – Mason was able to avoid asking in the Warren County community for a tax hike this year. The district has not sought a new operating levy since 2005.
As with so many area districts, the campaigns for public schools are non-stop, whether they are tied to a new levy or simply reminding residents of Mason’s successes, she says.
“The challenge is getting the confidence up with all residents for the public schools. But the idea that all public schools need to be fixed is not what we are facing in Mason,” Kist-Kline says in reference to the district’s top state rating of “excellent with distinction” and its long record of being one of Ohio’s premier school systems.
She gives much of the credit for her first year’s transition successes to the groundwork laid by former Ohio Superintendent of the Year Kevin Bright.Bright’s departure allowed Kist-Kline to take the job last summer as she moved from her superintendent’s position at Wyoming Schools – another top-rated district.
Mason Board of Education President Kevin Wise says Kist-Kline’s success is not a surprise.
“Gail’s experience as a proven leader was immediately visible. There was no honeymoon and her style doesn’t require one,” Wise says.
“During the last year she faced difficult issues including continued staffing reductions and the first ever building consolidation in Mason. Those two projects don’t lend themselves to making friends.’’