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Fort Frye looking to make cuts due to tax drop

Planning is still underway for remaining cuts needed

Photo by Janelle Patterson Quality academic instruction remains the top of the three priorities within Fort Frye Local Schools this month as district leadership pivot to financial challenges posed in the 2020-21 school year.

Another unexpected financial shift this school year pauses single-campus visioning while budget cuts are planned, state government is lobbied and the three adopted priorities of Fort Frye Local Schools are addressed by different means.

“We were charged to best meet the academic and safety needs of students and staff while being the most fiscally responsible,” explained Superintendent Stephanie Starcher on Tuesday.

But then this month the district received early notice to buckle up — notice not required before January.

Washington County Auditor Matthew Livengood described Tuesday that while his office was preparing valuation changes provided by the state for the 2020 tax collection in 2021 this month, a marked difference was noted by his staff.

“She’s putting this in and she saw this one, what it was now and what it would be going to,” Livengood said. “I immediately pulled up the tax rate and did a … rough calculation and that’s when I called Stacy (Bolden, district treasurer) out at Fort Frye and (gave) a heads up.”

The courtesy notice was to the tune of $1.6 million projected loss in public utilities and personal property tax revenue to the school district.

The district had forecast taking in $7 million from 2020 taxes in 2021. Now, with 2.5 months left in the year, approximately $400,000 preliminary cuts are planned while awaiting state answers on whether, and/or how much, aid the state will supply as a stopgap.

Planning is still underway for the remaining cuts needed to remain consistent with the board’s track record of a balanced budget.

How did we get here?

1. Financial solvency: Despite the closure of the of AEP-owned coal-fueled Muskingum River Plant at Beverly in 2015, the district’s financial priorities have focused on a balanced budget.

Superintendent Stephanie Starcher explained Tuesday that the school district didn’t experience a negative hit to its finances because at the same time the coal-fueled plant went offline, the gas and steam-powered energy plant (formerly known as Duke, Dynegy and Luminant, now owned by Vistra) was coming off of tax abatement in place from its early development and construction at the turn of the century.

2. With the consistent tax payments of the energy generation plant in Beverly, the district’s permanent improvement fund remained healthy enough for the district in the last few years to consider taking on debt if voters would be amenable to a bond issue of up to 4 mills for a new campus.

3. But now with the energy plant under its newest ownership, the business is taking advantage of a tax break for environmental stewardship it has been qualified for long before the acquisition.

“In 2018 we were acquired by our current company, Vistra, and were made aware of the excess of taxes that we had been paying since 2015,” explained Tim Ansell, plant manager, in an email to Starcher in preparation for discussion with the Times.

Ansell explained that the initial assessment for public utility tax on the plant did not take into account environmentally-friendly measures of the electricity-producing plant including its efficiency and low emissions to reduce greenhouse gas contribution.

But Ansell was clear, retroactive relief in compensation for overpayment in taxes is not the goal of the school district’s partner in agricultural education, energy education, hosting internships, food drives and other event support with students and the community.

“We are not seeking any retroactive relief even though we estimate that we overpaid taxes (at a an estimated overage of) $2 million (per) year over a four-year period,” he wrote.

But now, the district faces a loss of $1.55 million previously forecast from the plant.

“This is reflecting the flaws in the laws in Ohio around school operating funding,” Starcher noted, also addressing the ongoing state discussions concerning operational funding for student education and House Bill 305. “This shows the vulnerability of school systems to a ‘T.'”

Facilities planning

Now, the planning investment of community partners, district professionals and families must shift.

Starcher explained that building new is not possible right now, though funds are banked for facility permanent improvements, but all of the work summarized below will not go to waste:

¯ Fall 2018: District leaders decided on a process for master facilities planning, including the employment of OHM Advisors.

¯ February 2019: Visioning sessions including more than 60 individuals from staff, student, parent, community and partner organizations and visits to other school systems.

¯ April-Sept. 2019: Facility valuations, represented by 12-14 people, review all four academic facilities and subsequent assets of the district, operations costs.

According to pre-coronavirus data provided by the Ohio Department of Education, while the district cost per pupil in the 2018-19 school year was $9,885, the cost to educate a child in-classroom ranged by the district’s four buildings:

¯ Salem Liberty Elementary: $11,663.

¯ Lowell Elementary: $10,493.

¯ Beverly-Center Elementary: $10,521.

¯ Fort Frye middle and high school: $8,845.

“It’s kind of hard to determine per-pupil costs for (the 2019-20) school year because we weren’t in classrooms for a good bit at the end,” said Bolden, noting Tuesday evening that she is working on those figures to determine what costs were, including added virtual learning costs this past spring.

¯ Sept. 2019-Summer 2020: Master Facilities Planning Committee, 18 members representing district staff, administration, board of education members, parents and community members meet.

Budget cuts

Meanwhile, coronavirus struck Ohio in early 2020, costing the district $224,000 for the fiscal year 2020 and another forecast $224,000 in lost state revenue this school year (FY 2021).

Despite that loss, Adams and Waterford townships and the Village of Lowell pledged coronavirus relief funds to the school district to cover additional costs incurred to reopen the school district this fall.

“Waterford Township has donated $14,304.56 so far and they are going to cover our remote learning costs as well,” reported Bolden. “Adams Township has donated $9,989.40. The Village of Lowell is going to donate as well; we just don’t have an amount yet.”

With financial solvency still positive, the Master Facilities Planning Committee recommended to Fort Frye Local Schools’ Board of Education in September to consider a single-campus plan and ask voters for a bonded building levy.

Then the call from Livengood rang in.

Now the board of education must decide when and where to cut.

Starcher and Bolden shared early planning could achieve a balanced budget through the elimination of four part-time paraprofessional positions and one full-time paraprofessional position beginning in January, and through potential attrition of other positions by the fall of 2021.

But operations expenses must also consider the physical costs of four academic buildings or whether the district may return to taxpayers for an emergency operating levy.

For example, the closure of a building could save approximately $523,000 in the budget.

But the two are charged with providing all of those figures for those elected into the district’s board of education to decide.

“I don’t think we’ll have the major reductions ready within the month,” Starcher guided.

First, the board and district officials must digest hereunto awaited answers from the state, then consider what and whom else can go.

That board will next meet on Nov. 19 at 6 p.m. at the Beverly-Center Elementary in Beverly.

Janelle Patterson may be reached at jpatterson@mariettatimes.com.

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