By Sue Botos
Rocky River school administrators, stunned after the March 6 defeat of a 5.9-mill operating levy, will turn to residents for answers during the coming weeks, as they consider placing the measure on a special August ballot.
“I can’t believe we were the only levy in the county to fail,” remarked school board President Kathleen Goepfert as board members somberly filed in for last week’s committee session. The levy, which would have generated $4.3 million annually for the district, was turned down 3,490 to 3,362 by voters.
“I want to know why the levy failed,” said Superintendent Michael Shoaf, who suggested a community meeting to address this issue, as well as asking residents what they feel should be cut from the schools’ budget.
“I know some ideas will not be plausible,” he continued, referring to items under contracts that can’t be broken, but he said he wanted the community to give its input possibly in a roundtable discussion forum.
Board member Jay Milano agreed that with a “give and take there will be less feeling that cuts are coming from the top down without paying attention.”
Shoaf said that earlier in the day, school officials met to compile a list of potential budget reductions, which he presented to the board. “We have an $825,000 hole we didn’t have a year ago,” he said, referring to diminishing state funds.
In an interview before the meeting, Shoaf said, “We spent the day really digging into making $1.5 million in cuts.” He added that the reductions needed to be in place before August to get the district through the fiscal year.
Teachers and tutors could be eliminated, and class sizes could increase, according to Shoaf, who said that immediate effects will be felt with the cutting of field trips, special presentations, and anything requiring additional fees from the district. “We’re also going to take a good hard look at transportation. We now transport to 18 buildings, so we will look into eliminating some routes,” he said.
Treasurer Greg Markus noted that without the passage of a levy, the schools must cut $4.5 million over the next two years to stay out of the red. He said legally, a school district can’t enter a fiscal year with a negative balance. He added that a decision on an August levy must be made before the May 9 filing date.
“There’s no way you cut $1.5 million and not impact programs. I heard ‘don’t threaten us with cuts.’ I’m not threatening anyone. I’m not talking down to anyone. But I’m telling you that elementary classes in the 20s and high school classes in the 30s are certainly going to occur without the successful passage of a levy,” commented Shoaf.
Board members also discussed the possibility that some of the new teachers hired last year could be laid off, but then recalled upon levy passage. “There’s a good chance they won’t be back because they found other employment,” stated Shoaf.
Levy Chairwoman Melissa Ferchill told West Life in a prior interview that low voter turnout, coupled with unclear wording on absentee ballots, did not help the schools’ cause. She said in 2008, when the last operating levy passed, about 8,000 residents came to the polls, as opposed to 6,700 this year.
She added that there was also “organized opposition” this time from a group that circulated literature and posted a website detailing school and city employee salaries. The information focused on teacher salaries, stating that 35 make over $90,000. However, eight of those teachers retired last school year.
Board members felt that the real problem was coming from Columbus, which has shifted funds from high-performing districts to lower-performing systems. “There is a profound unfairness. The anger is not with the community. It’s the unfairness of the system,” said Milano, adding that taxpayers in districts such as Rocky River are expected to “bear the full weight” of school operation.
“I’ve worked in four districts,” said Shoaf, who added that the Rocky River schools have always been noted for giving students personalized attention. “It’s that piece we’re going to gut,” said Shoaf, adding that now, instead of planning for new programs, “All we’re doing is identifying how we can cut this district apart.”
Editor’s note: West Life will also seek public response on why the levy failed. Join us online Thursday, march 15, at noon.