By Kevin Kelley
The Westlake City Schools Board of Education voted unanimously Monday night to restore busing cuts that had been implemented Feb. 3.
In response to the defeat of an operating levy in November, the district had cut transportation to state minimum requirements, namely bus trips for those in kindergarten through grade eight residing two miles or farther from their school.
Following Monday’s vote, students in kindergarten through grade eight residing one mile or farther from their school will have bus transportation. Those who briefly lost bus transportation will have it restored in April, Superintendent Dan Keenan said. To accommodate the additional riders, bus routes will be slightly longer – from 40 minutes to 50 minutes. And buses will be more crowded. Keenan said bus capacity will increase from 75 percent to above 90 percent.
Twelve bus drivers were laid off in the previous round of cuts. An unknown number will be called back, Keenan said.
The resolution approved by the board calls for the one-mile standard of busing to be in place through at least January 2015.
Bus transportation for Westlake High School students was eliminated about three years ago, Keenan said.
Restoration of the busing cuts became a possibility when the district learned Feb. 14 that it would receive up to $2 million in unexpected delinquent tax revenue. The Cuyahoga County fiscal office informed the district that delinquent property tax payments in Westlake exceeded its expectations.
District Treasurer Mark Pepera told board members that he was still awaiting definitive word from county officials on exactly how much additional money the district will receive. Pepera said he was told that a significantly large entity in Westlake paid its property taxes late. Pepera said he believed the additional revenue is a one-time windfall.
Calls by West Life to the county fiscal office seeking further details were not returned.
During the public comment section of Monday night’s school board meeting, four parents told members they wanted to see the additional money go toward academic programs.
“Most people are saying that they’d rather see a teacher keep their job,” said one mother, commenting on conversations she has had with other parents.
Keenan said the district still has a long-term financial problem following voters’ defeat of two operating levies last year, and that teacher layoffs will be necessary. But the unexpected tax revenue has given the district some fiscal breathing room in the near term, he said. The superintendent said the number of teacher layoffs, originally estimated at 33, is now expected to be in the high 20s. Anticipated teacher retirements and possible concessions by the teachers union in upcoming contract negotiations could lower that number further, he added.
Keenan said he never wanted the district’s transportation services to permanently be at state minimum standards.
“We didn’t sell the buses off,” he said.
While many Westlake students and their families have the means to cope with busing cutbacks, Keenan said, others have struggled with them.
“More than you might think,” he said.
Keenan said he did not believe the district should save the unexpected revenue at the expense of children who have a real need.
Through previous rounds of budget cuts, academic cuts have been proportional, Keenan said. The district has sought to protect student opportunities in the classroom and beyond, he explained.
Keenan said some have told him restoration of busing cuts will result in some people thinking the district’s long-term financial problems have gone away. But the interests of students must come first, the superintendent said.
“I will never make a recommendation to you to make people ‘feel the pressure’ at the expense of our kids,” Keenan told board members.
Board member John Finucane introduced a resolution that would have ended a recently implemented pay-to-participate program for athletics and other extracurricular programs. But it failed by a 4-1 vote. Members besides Finucane said they have concluded that pay-to-play programs are “the new normal” in most Ohio public school districts.