By Kevin Kelley
“Wow. Didn’t they just build new schools?”
That comment was posted to West Life’s Facebook page in response to this newspaper’s story that the Westlake City Schools placed a 5.4-mill operating levy on the Nov. 5 ballot.
The question of why a school district would need more money after building a new high school and middle school is just one challenge supporters of Issue 88, the Westlake school levy, face.
Like many governmental bodies, the school district keeps funds for day-to-day operations and long-term capital expenses separate. State law requires this when bond issues are involved.
Think of it this way: If you obtain money to build an addition to your house, the everyday expenses for groceries and utilities do not stop.
The $84 million bond issue passed by voters in May 2010 is paying for the new school buildings. The requested 5.4-mill operating levy, which will raise an additional $7.3 million annually, will pay for continuing costs such as teachers’ salaries and books.
For many taxpayers, that’s a distinction without a difference.
As both school board member Nate Cross and the district’s own polling consultant said, taxpayers don’t keep separate checkbooks to pay for both the district’s operating and capital expenses.
District leaders have acknowledged the difference between operating and capital costs is not fully appreciated by some.
“There’s a lot to communicate when it comes to school funding,” Superintendent Dan Keenan said.
A website, educatewestlake.org, run by Dave Albert, has been blogging daily on Issue 88 and the school district. Many of the posts have to do with teacher salaries.
Albert, whose wife, Michelle, ran unsuccessfully for the school board in 2011, told West Life he’s not trying to make Issue 88 a referendum on teacher salaries.
“People should do their own research, find out where they stand on the levy and vote their conscience,” Albert said.
Conversations about teacher salaries and school funding are legitimate issues and should continue, Keenan told West Life. But the superintendent wants voters to see that, despite Ohio’s imperfect school funding structure, the Westlake City Schools have delivered a strong education to students while being fiscally responsible.
Keenan and other supporters point to the most recent teachers 18-month contract, signed in January, that includes a 2.5-percent decrease in educators’ base salaries during the contract’s final 12 months. The contract increases teachers’ health care contributions by 50 percent (from 10 percent to 15 percent) and their prescription copays by 33 percent.
The Westlake district has made contract adjustments that are as good as or better than similar districts, Keenan said.
If the operating levy passes, the Westlake City Schools will still remain in the bottom 25 percent of school taxes in Cuyahoga County, said Chris Kennedy, a parent who is chairing the Issue 88 campaign.
The Issue 88 campaign website, westlakelevy.com, takes on, point by point, allegations made in anonymous mailings against the school levy. For the record, Albert said he is not behind the anti-levy mailings.
If approved, the levy will cost Westlake property owners an additional $15.75 per month for every $100,000 in property value.
If the levy fails, Keenan has said he will seek an additional $2.2 million in cuts from the district’s budget, including the elimination of at least 30 teaching positions.
The district has already made cuts of nearly $1 million annually after a 5.9-mill operating levy failed in May by just 44 votes.
Levy supporters have maintained that any further cuts will reduce the quality of education the district can offer students.
The four school board members who voted to place the 5.4-mill levy on the November ballot said they felt strongly that the community wants not just an average or above average school district, but a premium one.
“We don’t educate for good; we educate for excellence,” Keenan said, referencing the district’s mission statement.