By Sue Botos
As expected, the highlights of Superintendent Michael Shoaf’s state of the schools address last week were the success of the district and the need for passage of Issue 114, the 4.9-mill levy, to maintain that quality. But it was levy co-chairman Jim Spillino who alluded to a negative campaign which, both online and through distribution of fliers, claims that there are other ways to balance the budget.
“There’s a lot of noise out there using fear and misinformation to distract voters from the truth,” Spillino told the group after Shoaf and levy chairwoman Melissa Ferchill addressed the luncheon crowd at the Don Umerley Civic Center.
“I guess I’m part of that noise,” stated Chuck Bartsche, the resident spearheading WASTE (We Are Simply Taxed Enough), which claims to support the schools but presents anti-levy information. During a brief question and answer session after the address, he questioned Shoaf about negotiations with teachers, which are set to begin after the Nov. 6 election.
“If the levy passes, will salaries increase again?” he questioned. Bartsche also brought up his group’s claim that severance payments to employees totaled more than $1 million in 2012.
Shoaf countered that it was not possible to answer these questions at this time, but that it was essential for the district to continue to attract quality teachers. “The school board will have to look at what other districts are doing,” he stated. (At a special board of education meeting later in the week, it was announced that the teachers union and school employees union agreed to extend their base-pay freeze for a third year.)
Prior to the address, school board members and administrators distributed a statement titled “Rumors and Facts about Issue 114,” which refuted several of the claims made by Bartsche and WASTE.
“We wanted to provide you the facts about certain allegations made by this organization so you have accurate information about Issue 114,” noted the statement.
Regarding the charge of the $ 1 million in severance payments, the literature echoed Shoaf, stating that in 2011, a one-time buyout was taken by a number of longtime employees, leading to this unusual increase in severance costs. It was pointed out, however, that the buyout gave the district a net savings of $1.2 million over four years.
Countering the claim by the negative campaign that tenure and seniority take the focus off employee performance, the flier supported Shoaf’s statement that in order to maintain the quality of the district, the best staff must be attracted. “We must offer salaries comparable with neighboring communities and we do. There are thousands of teachers who apply for our jobs every year meaning our district hires the best available and the results show,” read the statement.
During his address, Shoaf outlined the district’s achievements, the most recent of which was the tapping of the high school as a National Blue Ribbon School. “As far as national awards, that’s as good as it gets,” commented Shoaf, noting that Kensington Intermediate School had received the honor last year.
Shoaf continued, saying while the release of the state board of education’s “report card” has been held up due to issues that do not affect Rocky River, he guaranteed the community would be “pleased with the results,” which he predicted would be a 12th straight year with an “Excellence With Distinction” rank.
On the subject of finances, Shoaf underscored the fact that the district lost $3.5 million in state funding last year, which will not be replaced. Without levy passage, a deficit of $942,000 looms for the next school year, and more than $4.9 million by 2014.
The budget trimming has already begun, according to Shoaf, with a cut of nearly $1 million last year, and $300,000 already in 2012. Teachers, administrators and support staff agreed to no salary increases during the 2011 negotiations, although “step” increases, based on seniority and education, remained. Employees also more than tripled their contribution to health insurance, saving the district $800,000 per year.
The levy, which will cost taxpayers about $12 a month per $100,000 in home valuation, is for school operations only, and has nothing to do with the bond issue passed for the renovations taking place at the schools. Shoaf said that it cost $1.2 million to refurbish portions of Beach Education Center to house board offices, but would have taken more than twice that amount to fix up the former offices in the old Goldwood School building, which was recently razed.
“We lowered the millage request to make it more affordable, but if we wait, we’ll have to ask for more,” Shoaf stated.