By Kevin Kelley
The Westlake City Schools will try once again to persuade voters to support an operating levy.
By a 4-1 vote, the Board of Education decided July 30 to place a 5.4-mill operating levy on the Nov. 5 ballot. In May, a 5.9-mill levy failed by only 44 votes, 0.72 percent of all cast either for or against the tax.
Superintendent Dan Keenan said the additional revenue is necessary for the district to maintain current programs that make the Westlake schools stand out, such as Advanced Placement, sports, arts and music, and language arts.
During board discussions the previous day, the superintendent said he believes the community wants its school district to be better than those of its neighbors while still being fiscally responsible.
“I believe a levy is critical if we are to be excellent,” he said.
If approved, the 5.4-mill levy will raise $7.3 million annually and cost Westlake property owners an additional $15.75 per month for every $100,000 in property value.
The district’s goal in passing an operating levy in November is to ensure that the budget is balanced at least through the 2017 fiscal year. If a levy is not passed this fall, the district would need to pass a 7.5-mill levy in May to achieve the same result, Keenan said. Keenan also said he would propose $2.23 million in cuts to the annual budget if a levy is not passed this fall. Such a move would likely involve eliminating 30 teaching and seven other positions, the superintendent said.
Before he voted against placing the levy on the ballot, Nate Cross said voters, by passing a library levy renewal and defeating the school levy, sent a strong message in May that they don’t want to be taxed any more. Cross, who is running for the Ward 2 seat on Westlake City Council, said the district had been overly generous in the past in providing salaries and benefits to its union employees.
“Until we listen to our voters and bring spending under control, I will not support a tax increase,” Cross said.
School board President Tom Mays began his comment by saying, obviously to Cross, “I’ve never seen someone on a school board so intent on damaging an excellent school district.” Mays acknowledged that salaries make up the vast majority of the district’s cost, but added that is the case everywhere.
“If you want Westlake to be a mediocre school district, then continue to vote down levies and we eventually will get there,” Mays said. Property values will reflect that decrease in quality, he added.
Board member Barb Leszynski, a retired teacher, said it is always difficult to ask for more tax dollars. She acknowledged that some people are resentful of the salaries of public school teachers.
“Where’s our money going to go but to teachers’ salaries?” she asked. “And if you are that resentful of what they are making, spend a day in a classroom with them and see what they do.
“If we want excellent schools, we have to pay for it. There’s no getting around it. If we fail this levy and we don’t have the money, our schools will be mediocre and we won’t have the excellent programs that we have.”
Board member Tony Falcone argued that Westlake is known for its excellent schools and that the district has not sought any new tax dollars for operating expenses since 2006.
Referring to the 44-vote shortfall in the May election, Carol Winter said the district failed to tell voters its story in a way voters needed to hear it.
“We need to do a better job with our message,” the board vice president said.
At the July 29 meeting, board members heard from Kathy Severinski of Triad Associates, who reported on the results of a recent phone survey the company conducted of 400 likely voters. The results, she said, were very similar to the results of a similar survey conducted before the May vote.
The survey, which had a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percent, indicated voters are split on what course of action the district should take. Thirty-six percent indicated more tax dollars should be sought, with the same amount calling for additional budget cuts. Thirteen percent want a combination of new taxes and cuts, while 15 percent are not sure.
The poll indicated that a solid third of likely voters are firmly against the levy, Severinski said. The number of voters who said they are definitely for passage of the levy was a bit higher now than earlier in the year, she said. This was the only indication that obtaining voter approval might be any easier than it was in May, she concluded. Severinski told board members that voters must be convinced that the schools truly need additional tax dollars for the levy to pass.