By Kevin Kelley
Monday night’s Westlake City Schools Board of Education meeting was both sweet and sour for Tom Mays, the body’s president. The first 90 minutes was sweet, he said, because it consisted of numerous recognitions being made for academic achievements made by the district’s students, including three who were recently invited to the White House for their achievements in engineering and design.
The sour, he said, came during the second half of the nearly three-hour meeting, when the board reflected on the recent operating levy loss and budget cuts required by the lack of new revenue.
The district’s 5.9-mill operating levy lost by just 47 votes among the 6,000 or so cast – 3,049 (49.62 percent) for and 3,096 (50.38 percent) against.
According to the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections website, 44 provisional ballot were cast by Westlake voters, and the board must determine which are valid. In addition, six vote-by-mail ballots were received after May 7 and thus not counted yet. Also, 140 vote-by-mail ballots were sent out to Westlake voters but not yet received by the Board of Elections. If any that were postmarked by May 6 are received by Friday, they will be counted.
If the final margin, as certified on May 22, is equal to or less than one-half of one percent, a recount automatically takes place. Backers of the district may also request one. Superintendent Dan Keenan indicated donated funds would be used to pay for the roughly $1,500 required to pay for a requested recount.
Even so, Keenan, who said he was deeply disappointed at the loss, is proceeding with budget cuts.
“We are planning as if the levy failed,” the superintendent said.
Keenan’s said his proposed cuts will come in all areas of the budget, not any single area.
Keenan’s recommended cuts for the next school year include:
• eliminating bus service for students living within a one-mile radius of their schools;
• cutting planned technology purchases for the new high school and middle school;
• cutting at least eight teaching positions, including up to five elementary school teachers;
• eliminating the family consumer science program at the high school;
• cutting administrative positions;
• reducing the budget for professional travel and field trips; and,
• cutting supplemental contracts that pay for moderators of extracurricular activities.
“These will certainly have an impact on class sizes,” Keenan said of the anticipated cuts.
The board will likely vote on the proposed cuts sometime in June.
The superintendent recommended, and all five board members agreed, that the district survey community members regarding why the levy failed. The district needs to listen to and learn from the community before any thought is given to making another attempt at passing a levy in November, Keenan said.
Board members and levy supporters expressed disappointment and seemed truly perplexed as to why the levy failed.
“I wish I knew,” levy campaign co-chair Chris Kennedy replied when asked why she thought the levy failed. A lot of variables may have come into play, she added.
Mays said if the district had been doing a terrible job in academics and financial matters, the defeat would have made sense. But the district has made deliberate efforts to be transparent with all its financial matters, the board president said.
Mays and fellow board member Tony Falcone referenced anonymous fliers opposing the levy that were mailed to some Westlake voters in the weeks before the election.
“Sometimes I wonder what it is the community expects of us,” Falcone mused aloud.
Mays and member Bard Leszynski said the board need to do a better job communicating with the community.
Member Nate Cross, who voted to place the levy on the ballot but later said he would not tell residents how to vote, thanked people for taking the time to vote. Cross said the board should now listen to the community and try to understand why the library levy passed overwhelmingly but the school levy failed in the same election. He said any budget cuts should not be punitive in nature, designed specifically to pressure voters to approve a future levy.