Levies on ballots in 2 area districts today

Today is Election Day for two nearby school districts asking voters to approve levies to avoid major cuts in the coming school year.

Caldwell Exempted Village, which includes a portion of Washington County’s Aurelius Township, is seeking the replacement of a 12-mill levy set to expire in January and an additional 7 mills to avoid more than $920,000 in cuts for 2013-14.

“We are currently providing a level of education that we can’t continue to provide” without additional funding, said Caldwell Exempted Board of Education President Abby Crock.

Meanwhile, Switzerland of Ohio Local voters will decide whether to support a five-year, 6.44-mill emergency levy or face the next two phases of budget reductions approved by the school board last summer.

“It’s going to be catastrophic compared to what we currently offer our students,” Switzerland Superintendent Larry Elliott said.

Caldwell Exempted

Interim Superintendent Dora Jean Bumgarner said funding reductions at the state level, including the accelerated phaseout of tangible personal property tax reimbursements; the expiration of federal stimulus

funds used to supplement state funds; and declining enrollment have combined to put the district in its current position.

In February, the district had to file a plan with the state to reduce its budget by $920,743. It includes eliminating eight-and-a-half teacher positions, five-and-a-half aides, a bus driver and some supplemental contracts, including assistant coaches, Bumgarner said.

The cuts will result in larger class sizes, although Bumgarner said the plan is to limit that to grades four through eight at the elementary and middle school level.

“At the high school, it’s a very small school, so you can’t make classes smaller; you just have to cut the offerings,” she said.

Crock said that would compound problems by making more students leave through open enrollment or join online community schools, further reducing the district’s funding.

“It’s really going to be a snowball that’s going to hurt the kids that do choose to stay,” she said.

Bumgarner said the 12-mill levy was approved in 2008 with the promise that an existing 7.5-mill levy would be allowed to expire. When that happened, “that really made the 12 mills become four-and-a-half mills,” she said.

The board is seeking a continuing levy, which some other area districts have, to provide a sense of certainty about funding, rather than facing potentially drastic cuts every five years, Bumgarner said.

If the levy is rejected, Crock anticipates the board returning to voters in November, but the cuts must still be implemented to keep the district from sliding from fiscal caution to fiscal watch, one step away from state control.

“If this levy fails, we will act on the $920,000 in cuts at our May 16 board meeting,” she said, calling the cuts “devastating.”

If the levy passes, it’s expected to raise about $840,000 a year, meaning the district will still have to make reductions.

“There’ll still be a trimming of the budget, but it won’t be near as drastic as this,” Bumgarner said.

The levy will cost the owner of a residential property valued at $100,000 an annual $581.86, representing about a $315 increase from the current rate.

“I know what it’s going to do to my taxes, but I know the kids need it and that’s the bottom line,” said Caldwell resident Mitchell Finley, 54, who has two sons attending school in the district.

Switzerland of Ohio

Like Caldwell, Switzerland of Ohio Local Schools will have to move forward with its cuts if today’s levy fails, Treasurer Lance Erlwein said.

“We won’t get another opportunity to go before the voters in time,” he said.

The reasons for Switzerland’s deficit mirror Caldwell’s.

“We had a perfect storm of cuts at the state level, declining enrollment and the cessation of the (stimulus) funding,” Erlwein said.

Another challenge is the 547 square miles the district covers, the largest in the state in terms of land area.

One thing that is not a factor, despite rumors to the contrary, Erlwein said, is the district’s ongoing construction and renovation projects, made possible by passage of a bond issue in May 2009.

“This is a completely separate pot of funds,” he said. “We’ve got plenty of money over on the bond issue to cover” the remaining buildings. Likewise, that money cannot be used to cover operational costs.

The Switzerland board approved three phases of cuts in July, the first of which has gone into effect. A full-time teaching staff hiring freeze was implemented, and a maintenance job, a central office position and the Beallsville Elementary principal post were eliminated. In addition, field trips that aren’t independently funded are no longer allowed and board members’ annual pay was capped at $1,500.

All elementary physical education, elementary music, home economics/consumer science and elementary and high school shop positions would be eliminated for the coming school year in Phase II.

In the third phase, the district will be reorganized to eliminate 23 positions, along with the closing of the bus garage at River High School and cutting of one bus mechanic position. Six teaching aide positions would be eliminated and all athletic and extracurricular activities would have to be self-supporting.

“It will basically be a bare minimum (educational) offering,” Elliott said.

Erlwein said the $2.5 million the levy would generate each year would balance the budget “at a break-even level. There’s no frills.

“We’re still going to have our work cut out for us even if it passes,” he said.

If the levy passes, it will be without the support of Hannibal resident Jody Albright.

“How many levies can we have? How much tax is enough? It’s got to stop sometime,” said Albright, 52.

He said he has children and other family members in the school system but is not overly concerned about the cuts.

“They always seem to say that and always seem to come up with something,” Albright said.