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Area school districts reel after levy failures, budget cuts

By Doug Livingston
Beacon Journal education writer

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People line up to find their precinct before voting at the Active Adult Center on Tuesday election day in Barberton, Ohio. (Paul Tople/Akron Beacon Journal)

Since 2007, Barberton City Schools has slashed its operating budget in an attempt to weather the recession, decreasing property tax revenue, fleeting federal stimulus dollars and state budget cuts.

The district caved in November 2011, appealing to voters with the first of three levies.

None has passed.

The most recent failed Tuesday, when more than 52 percent of voters rejected a 8.52-mill levy that would have generated $3 million annually over the next five years.

The district, like many others facing fiscal uncertainty, already has cut busing and eliminated staff, including 50 teaching positions, in the past two years.

“We’re pretty much down to the bone,” Superintendent Patti Cleary said Wednesday. More cuts are inevitable, she said, although she is unsure which positions are on the chopping block.

In the wake of Tuesday’s election, school districts are relieved — or regrouping.

Even Akron Public Schools, which passed a 7.9-mill, $19.3 million-generating levy, can only breathe a momentary sigh of relief as the district looks to lop another $9 million from its budget. Had the levy not passed, Superintendent David James would face $27 million in additional cuts from a budget that incurred a $19.5 million slash in the past year.

“I’m not sure we could have absorbed a loss like that,” James said.

Across the state, the Ohio School Boards Association reports that 55 percent of school tax issues on the Nov. 6 ballot passed.

“We are pleased that even in a difficult economy, voters in many communities affirmed their support and investment in public education,” OSBA Director of Legislative Services Damon Asbury said in a news release.

Several local school districts weren’t so fortunate.

Joe Clark, of Nordonia Hills Schools, is among three Summit County superintendents reeling from a levy failure Tuesday. In the past three years, Nordonia has sought six additional levies, with only the November 2011 attempt passing.

“That levy was enough to stop the bleeding,” Clark said.

In the past three years, the district has eliminated foreign languages from the middle school curriculum and 130 employees.

Clark said a lot of people have told him “we cut too much.” But, he said, he doesn’t know “where else to cut. We’re about as trim as you can be.”

The district had hoped to restore full busing, reduce swollen class sizes by hiring four elementary teachers and bring back the foreign language offering in the middle school.

Now, Clark said, more cuts and another levy will follow in a year.

Budget shortfalls across the state have been anticipated for some time. At the beginning of the 2011-2012 school year, Policy Matters — a nonprofit policy research organization — surveyed 172 of Ohio’s 613 school districts to gauge the impact looming budget cuts would have on local operating budgets.

About two-thirds said they would cut their work force. About 60 percent said they would freeze pay.

“This was a leading approach that [districts] were planning on taking,” said Wendy Patton, a senior project leader at Policy Matters.

Those projections are coming to fruition.

“We have to figure out how we’re making payroll next year,” Cleary said.

The Policy Matters report, published in January, also stated that “students would feel a direct impact” should staffing levels decrease.

Clark and Cleary have cited ballooning class sizes in their respective districts, especially in the elementary schools. It’s an issue Akron Public Schools will revisit as the district continues to consolidate buildings to curb operating expenses.

For Clark, attrition and downsizing have meant Nordonia did not fill his former assistant superintendent position after he was promoted. His secretary facilitates those duties as Clark updates the website daily, a job of the former public communications person.

Clark estimates his district’s average class size has climbed to 32 students after staff reductions. He can recall 50 students in a health class at the high school at one point, but added that was atypical.

At Barberton, administrators are considering further cost-saving measures: the elimination of art and music classes at the elementary schools, shrinking the kindergarten classes to a half day and the possibility of offering only core subjects.

In Massillon, Superintendent Richard Goodright cradles a one-vote lead as Stark County Board of Elections officers tally provisional and absentee ballots that will determine the fate of the city district’s levy.

But like most districts, Massillon already has made concessions: slashing last year’s budget by $3.7 million, closing three elementary schools, eliminating 51 staff positions and relocating the Board of Education to a building with lower utility costs.

The levy’s passage won’t bring any of that back; it simply will keep the district afloat.

“The levy will do nothing other than create status quo for us,” Goodright said. “We’re not the only school in this situation.”

Doug Livingston can be reached at dlivingston@thebeaconjournal.com.



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