Millions at stake for local schools

Residents will decide Tuesday whether 18 local districts get revenue or should make more cuts.

Voters are expected to decide Tuesday whether 18 local school districts collectively should receive millions of dollars in funding or whether they should make millions of dollars in cuts.

The school officials whose districts are asking for new money and those seeking continued support through renewals say these levies and the funding they provide are crucial to academic programs and services for thousands of local students.

Huber Heights City Schools Superintendent Sue Gunnell said that without new revenue, the challenge becomes trying to maintain a balanced program for students.

“You can’t be career and college ready in today’s world without a strong academic program, and so it’s hard to be looking at that and saying, ‘What piece are we going to be recommending is diminished?’ ” Gunnell said. “All of those are very important.”

Many residents support the efforts of local schools and the education they provide, but some also question whether districts should find other sources of revenue within their budgets instead of asking for money through taxes.

“Everybody I interact with is really upset because their whole life is involved in having to figure out how to do more with less,” said Michael Gibbons, a retired businessman who lives in the Vandalia-Butler school district. “When that’s the journey they’re embarked upon, why should the school system not be figuring out how to do the same thing? It’s become a ‘we’ versus ‘they.’ ”

Districts across the state have been adapting to multiple federal and state funding declines, including a $1.8 billion reduction in funding via the 2011 biennial budget. They also have been affected by a drop in local property tax collections and earnings, an increase in unfunded mandates from the state and the overall impact of the economy.

Ohio’s mechanism for funding public school districts via property taxes has been declared unconstitutional three times since 1997, leaving those school districts and their residents working within an admittedly broken system.

As it stands, Ohio school districts have two ways of gaining or recouping funds: cutting spending and passing levies.

Levy breakdown

Of the 18 school districts in the Dayton area with issues on Tuesday’s ballot, 12 are requesting new money and six are seeking renewals. Jefferson Twp. Local Schools is the only district in the region with a bond issue and levy on the ballot.

The Montgomery, Greene, Miami and Warren county districts seeking new money have already cut more than $60 million from their collective budgets in the last two to three years.

The funding from these levies will help some districts reinstate previously cut services, such as busing at Beavercreek City Schools, while many others will use the funds to sustain district budgets and some may have to make more cuts even if their levies pass. Huber Heights plans to cut up to $1.5 million, mostly from personnel, if its levy passes.

Miamisburg, New Lebanon, Cedar Cliff, Miami East and Milton-Union all have renewal levies on the ballot for operating expenses and/or permanent improvements, and Newton Local Schools has an income tax renewal before voters.

Districts with renewal levies, which are not expected to raise taxes, also have made multimillion-dollar cuts in response to funding reductions from the state and anticipated reductions in the future.

Miamisburg, which has an 8.21-mill renewal levy on Tuesday’s ballot, has made $4.5 million in cuts in the last five years.

“Employees’ take-home pay has actually gone down,” said Miamisburg Superintendent David Vail, referring to pay freezes and increases paid to insurance.

Miami East Local Schools was put on state fiscal caution last October. Though renewal levies tend to have a much higher success rate than requests for new money, passage can be challenging in a sluggish economy.

“It’s always tough; I don’t care if it’s new operating money or a renewal,” Superintendent Todd Rappold said. “It’s very difficult for folks right now in the community and I can certainly appreciate that.”

Passage brings the possibility of being removed from state oversight, he said.

Seven of the 12 new-money levies are listed as “emergency” levies, which are termed as such if a district determines that its present revenues are insufficient to provide for the emergency requirements of the school district or to avoid an operating deficit.

It does not mean that that district is in danger of “fiscal emergency,” which is defined by the state auditor as “the last and most severe stage of a school district’s financial solvency problems.”

Of the Dayton-area districts seeking new money, officials in Fairborn and Huber Heights have told their voters they’re in danger of state fiscal oversight if their levies fail.

Salaries, politics

In the last few years, the beleaguered economy has affected businesses and employees around the state and has drawn increasing attention to what people earn — especially of those working in the public sector, whose salaries and benefits are made accessible by law.

To address the concern of local residents about compensation paid to those employed at local school districts, the Dayton Daily News examined the average classroom teachers’ and average administrators’ salaries of districts seeking new money this fall in the multiple school levy stories published in the last month.

Seven districts on the ballot were above the Dayton area’s average teachers’ salary of $57,136 for fiscal year 2011.

Beavercreek was fourth in the area and topped districts seeking new money at $64,303, while Jefferson Twp. was the lowest at $40,667. Six other districts above the average teachers’ salary included Centerville, Yellow Springs, Huber Heights, Vandalia-Butler, West Carrollton and Xenia, respectively.

West Carrollton had the highest average administrators’ salary in this sampling, at $95,963, and is seventh in the area as a whole. Jefferson Twp. again was at the bottom of that list.

Rusty Clifford, West Carrollton superintendent, said his district decreased the number of administrators and those left have added responsibilities. He said their collective experience equates to higher average salaries.

“There are four of us that have over 160 years in education (combined),” Clifford said.

Another factor in this fall’s election is the increased turnout that historically accompanies presidential elections.

Jefferson Twp. Superintendent Richard Gates said the last time voters approved new money for his district was in November 2008.

“We’ve made it pretty clear, there’s no tomorrow,” Gates said. “This is now or never because even though you have other terms that you can go for this, history bears us out: It’s been a presidential election that brings our voters out.”

According to the Ohio School Boards Association, school levy passage in presidential elections has been mixed: November 2004 saw a lower than average passage rate, while 2008 had higher than average approvals.

What this election will hold is anyone’s guess.

“It’s too close to call,” Clifford said. “The whole conversation about any race that’s out there is impacted by the conversation between the two presidential candidates. If you say, ‘I’m with this guy,’ or ‘I’m with that guy,’ that will translate into other issues on the ballot.”

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