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Warren attempts new bond issue

November 3, 2012
By Evan Bevins ( , The Marietta Times

Five times the Warren Local Board of Education placed a bond issue for new schools on the ballot, and five times Barlow resident John Nichols and a majority of voters in the district opposed it.

But a sixth, different issue is on the Nov. 6 general election ballot and Nichols - now a member of the board he criticized for putting the original question before voters a third and fourth time - is backing it. He hopes others who opposed the previous attempts will, too.

"The previous bond issues ... I just didn't feel that we needed five new buildings, especially with the economy the way it is now," Nichols said.

Then and now

The first four issues sought the 42 percent local share of a $74.6 million bond issue to replace the district's three elementary schools and high school and add a middle school. The last was at a rate of 8.19 mills, with a required half-mill permanent improvement levy, and failed by just eight votes. A fifth attempt sought three elementaries and a middle school, with voters asked to approve a 5.4-mill bond issue and 0.5-mill levy to raise 38 percent of a $53.6 million project. It was rejected by a more-than-1,300-vote margin.

The latest proposal asks for a 3.45-mill bond issue to raise the 36 percent local share of a $10.75 million project to build a new high school. Barlow-Vincent Elementary School would be torn down, and the existing high school converted to an elementary. As part of the same vote, the district is seeking a 5-mill permanent improvement levy that would raise $1,149,524.20 a year to fund needed repairs on the remaining schools while taking the burden for those costs off the district's general fund.

Fact Box

The issue

Rate: 3.45 mills for a 20-year bond issue to fund the local share of building a new high school; 5 mills for a 10-year permanent improvement levy).

Revenue: $10.75 million for the high school project, plus $1,149,524.20 a year for the permanent improvement levy.

Cost: $258.79 a year for the owner of a home valued at $100,000 for the first 10 years; $105.66 for the last 10 years.

Source: Warren Local Schools.

That's a combined 8.45 mills, which Nichols agrees at face value seems similar to the first four issues. But he noted the period for the bond issue repayment is 20 years instead of 28, a change made in response to some residents' criticism the original payback period was too long. And the levy is for 10 years, meaning the amount residents pay would drop halfway through the life of the bond issue if the levy isn't renewed.

And the money from that 5-mill levy won't go toward interest like some of the bond funding will, Nichols said.

"A hundred percent of the PI levy is showing up here," he said.

As with the previous votes, this issue has its supporters and detractors.

"I think it's too much money for what they're wanting, and it's over too long a time," said Helen Yeager, 74, of Warren Township.

The plan is not different enough from the previous ones to change her vote, said Yeager, who criticized district Superintendent Tom Gibbs for "more or less trying to shove it down the people's throats."

Yeager said she's part of the older generation without children in the school district that some people have blamed for the previous defeats.

"We paid our dues when our children were in school, and when you're on a fixed income, you can't always pay these higher taxes," she said.

Little Hocking resident Kim Gandee, 38, voted for the last five issues and says she's voting for this one.

"I think our children deserve the very best facilities to learn in that they can have," she said.

The mother of four Little Hocking Elementary students who she said are "receiving a wonderful education," Gandee is comfortable with this approach, which will make some repairs to the 75-year-old school instead of replacing it.

"If it's the best option that the board feels that they can put out there at this time, then I'm in full support of it," she said.

Current facilities

Some have questioned why district leaders are willing to move forward with buildings they previously wanted to replace.

"I still think (all) our buildings need replaced, but residents have said that's not something they're willing to support," board President Bob Allen said.

Nichols and Allen agree Barlow-Vincent - with open classrooms separated by shelves rather than walls and modular units for additional classroom space - is in the worst shape. Moving those students to the high school, which has already undergone some roof repairs, and building a new high school will touch most of the students in the district, Nichols said.

An estimated $7.5 million in repairs are needed at the high school and Warren and Little Hocking elementaries, including roof work, boiler replacements, electrical upgrades, plumbing replacements and more. District officials have repeatedly said there are no plans to close Little Hocking and Warren elementaries in favor of a single campus, as some people have suggested.

High school busing

One of the most divisive outcomes of the previous rejections is the elimination of high school busing, part of a series of cuts made in 2011 to free up money to repair the existing buildings. The service is not required under state law, but many residents, board members included, believe going without it is a significant hardship.

There is anecdotal evidence the change has contributed to the district's declining enrollment, as families transfer their children to other districts or enroll them in online schooling. State funding follows those students.

The board unanimously voted at its September meeting to approve the reinstatement of busing if the bond issue passes. Some residents have criticized that - as they did the initial cutting of busing - as blackmail. Allen and other board members have said it was a choice they didn't want to make but that previous cuts left them with few options.

More cuts

Allen said if this bond issue fails, the board will have more difficult choices to make.

"And that's not blackmail; it's just we have all these building repairs to make that's going to have to come from the general fund," he said.

Allen noted the district has already made numerous cuts over the years, to the point where it ranks 22nd out of Ohio's more than 600 public school districts in terms of cost per pupil in fiscal year 2011.

Gibbs said Warren is near state minimum staffing levels but could "theoretically" cut five more teaching positions.

"This would require either (a) doing away with all-day, everyday kindergarten or (b) reducing nearly every remaining elective course at Warren High School," he said. "Additionally, there would not be money to continue to make building repairs."

Gibbs noted that in the time since cuts like high school busing and the elimination of 12 teaching positions were approved, the district's state stabilization funding total dropped from nearly $900,000 (thanks to federal stimulus money) in fiscal year 2011 to zero in fiscal year 2012. Meanwhile, the acceleration of the tangible personal property tax reimbursement cut $322,000 last year and the same amount this year.

The latest five-year forecast shows the district in deficit spending each year, with a negative cash balance starting at the end of fiscal year 2015 as costs continue to rise. By law, the district must have a balanced budget.

Gibbs said the board has not discussed potential courses of action should the bond issue and levy be rejected. If that happens, he said, an updated staffing analysis would happen in January and planning would go from there.



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