The Akron school board's decision to sit out the March primary and instead try for a new-money levy in November raises the stakes at the bargaining table for teachers, whose two-year contract expires this year.
Both sides agree that a negotiation demonstrating the teachers' willingness to sacrifice could help win support for a tax hike in tough times.
But how much sacrifice will be enough?
School officials, parents and voters in four area districts seeking new money on the March ballot Woodridge, Buckeye, Field and Waterloo are asking the same question.
Although superintendents have tried to keep cuts away from the classroom, wages and benefits comprise 73 to 83 percent of those districts' budgets.
This year is different: The size of Akron's projected deficit next year $22 million means the district won't be able to shield teachers and other staff from steep cuts.
''We tried to stretch our dollars as far as we could by trying to be smart with the cuts that we made,'' Superintendent David James said. ''The cuts that we have to make now are going to affect everybody.''
Cuts to erase such a deep deficit probably would require the elimination of 224 jobs, James said, and even if the levy passes in the fall, some teachers will lose their jobs.
The five districts in the Akron-Canton area seeking new money this year are confronting the same dilemma: Without new taxes, the deficits of four of them are so steep it would take ?double-digit wage reductions to fill the gap, according to a Beacon Journal analysis of district budget projections.
Akron would need a 12 percent across-the-board wage cut from all employees to eliminate next year's shortfall.
In some districts, the cuts would be even more severe.
Woodridge is so deep in the hole it would take a 32 percent cut in wages across the board to climb out, according to the analysis.
In Portage County, Waterloo would have to reduce employee wages by 21 percent.
Such draconian cuts would mean losing many good teachers, Waterloo Superintendent Andrew Hill said.
''We'd probably have a mass exodus of people,'' he said.
Ohio's poor economy already has exacted a toll on teachers in recent years, Many have agreed to pay freezes and have increased contributions to health-care costs to help districts balance their books.
Akron's teachers have gone three years without a raise in base salary and are paying more for prescription drug co-pays and health insurance deductibles.
Those concessions and other cuts, coupled with federal stimulus money, have helped extend the life of a levy voters approved in 2006 longer than school officials expected.
Jeff Moats, the teachers' union president, said he understands the pressure he and the district will be under to strike a deal that will persuade voters to approve the levy.
''I'm aware of the circumstances and the levy going on the ballot in November,'' said Moats, president of the Akron Education Association, which represents 1,700 full-time and 500 to 600 part-time employees. ''Teachers are a big force in the levy.''
Negotiations with the teachers typically begin around March 1 and should conclude by late May or early June, followed by the five smaller unions, which typically agree to similar deals.
Jason Haas, newly elected school board president, agreed that the outcome of the contract talks will be a key selling point in November.
''That's an important question for the next year: How do we approach negotiations and get to a position where everybody leaves relatively happy?'' he said.
Akron came close to passing a 5.5-mill levy last November, losing by only 197 votes after an automatic recount.
Haas said teacher pay wasn't a big issue in that campaign.
''When it did come up, what I did say was, 'Hey listen, they've taken pay freezes [and] we're working with a joint health-care committee to assess how we can save money,'?'' Haas said. ''The people I talked to in the fall, they understood that.''
Teachers haven't received an across-the-board raise in base pay since 2008.
A first-year teacher with a bachelor's degree starts at $34,378. A teacher with 30 years of experience and a master's degree makes about $73,000 annually.
Defeat follows concessions
Getting more concessions might improve Akron's chances at the ballot box, but it's no guarantee.
Just ask Waterloo school officials in Portage County.
Waterloo teachers agreed to freeze their base pay and to forgo scheduled salary increases last year as part of an overall package of savings that trimmed $1 million a tenth of its budget. The teachers also agreed to higher deductibles for health insurance and higher prescription co-payments.
Voters still turned down Waterloo's levy request in November.
If voters don't approve a levy in March, the district will need to cut $400,000 by the beginning of the next school year, Hill, the superintendent, said.
That probably would mean layoffs.
''We're not far from being at state-minimum staffing levels,'' Hill said. ''There are no areas we can cut where it's not going to have some kind of direct impact on either increasing class sizes greatly or eliminating programs.''
Most districts face deficits
Many schools in Ohio face the same dire prospects, according to a recent survey of the state's districts by Policy Matters Ohio, a nonprofit think tank specializing in economic research and government.
The survey found that two-thirds of Ohio districts face deficits and nearly a quarter of school officials who responded to the survey said they plan to cut teaching staff by about 2.5 to 5 percent.
''Respondents also reported that they have already reduced staff, through attrition or layoff, by 700 positions, more than twice as many as the 331 reductions reported for the last school year,'' according to the survey released Jan. 19. ''If this rate of reduction occurred in all Ohio districts, then up to 2,500 teaching jobs may already have been eliminated in Ohio schools in the current school year.''
Parents generally hate layoffs because they might lose popular young teachers who lack seniority, and the teachers who remain have larger class sizes and fewer course options.
School officials across the state have combed their budgets to find alternatives to mass layoffs and program cuts.
In 2010, the Martins Ferry school district in southeast Ohio attempted uniform, across-the-board pay cuts to avoid layoffs.
''We actually had an audit from the state, and they came in and they were telling us basically, 'You've got to cut a lot of folks,'?'' Superintendent Dirk Fitch said. ''We just didn't want to do that to our students and our staff. We tried to look for an alternative way.''
The district imposed a two-year, 5 percent cut on every employee, including the superintendent.
''The teachers union actually voted to accept it,'' Fitch said. ''They pretty much saw the need for it and how it would help the district. Up to that point, most of the people had been getting raises.''
But the union representing nonteaching staff objected, arguing that it violated the contract. An arbitrator agreed, finding that the Ohio law dealing with collective bargaining trumps another statute that allows for uniform pay reductions.
''As a general rule, you can't cut anyone's salary unless it's for misconduct or they're moving to a lower-rated job,'' said Don Collins, general counsel for the State Employment Relations Board, which is not involved in the Martins Ferry case. ''Most of that is guarded by the collective bargaining agreement.''
Martins Ferry is appealing the arbitrator's decision.
Some districts have persuaded their unions to accept a pay cut through regular contract negotiations.
Sidney City Schools, north of Dayton, negotiated a four-year contract in June that cut teacher pay and benefits by an average of nearly 6 percent.
''Both our unions agreed to the same reductions, and these same reductions were implemented for all 400 employees,'' Superintendent John Scheu said.
The district, which has about the same enrollment as Barberton, will be solvent through 2016 without seeking new money, Scheu said.
Overall, only about 22 percent of requests for new money succeeded in the November election, according to Support Our Schools, a nonprofit that assists small districts with levy campaigns.
Scheu said the low passage rate ''sends out a loud and clear message to me that voters will support renewals, but before districts ask for additional sacrifices from their taxpayers, all employees are expected to show sacrifices on their part as well.
''Salary reductions are expected if voters are asked to ante up additional money.''
The Policy Matters survey found that most districts are leery about asking voters for more money. About three-quarters of school officials who responded said they had no plans for ballot issues this year.
Major cuts on table
Toledo City Schools, like Akron, is an exception and plans to try for a levy in November.
Superintendent Jerry Pecko said he hopes voters will appreciate that Toledo's teachers agreed to a 3.5 percent pay cut in August.
That concession helped the district overcome a $44 million deficit that threatened to wipe out course offerings important to teachers, said Pecko, who had spent 13 years as superintendent in the Barberton and Springfield Local school systems in Summit County before he was hired in Toledo in 2010.
''We had art, music and P.E. on the table. We were going to eliminate them completely,'' Pecko said. ''That was big in their minds as well. They were adamant that they did not want to see that go. But when your back is up against a wall, sometimes those are hard choices to make.''
Pecko said the district skipped the March primary to give the public more time to absorb a massive reorganization that eliminated the district's middle schools and created K-8 elementary schools in their place. Holding off until November also will give the public time to realize that teachers made a significant sacrifice.
''These negotiations were important for us to complete and be able to demonstrate that there is sacrifice on the part of the employees,'' Pecko said.
He said the pay cuts bought Toledo some time, but the district still will need new revenue.
''We have this year and next year as wiggle room, but we have to pass something in calendar year 2012 and start collecting in 2013,'' Pecko said. ''If we don't, we're going to be in deep trouble.''
In Portage County, Waterloo Superintendent Andrew Hill acknowledged some voters think all the cuts should come out of the employees' paychecks.
''That's definitely the mentality that a lot of people have,'' he said.
Hill said he understood that attitude. Although Waterloo teachers make less than the average among Portage County districts, that ''doesn't mean much'' to people struggling on even smaller paychecks or no paycheck at all.
Voters in March will have to judge how much sacrifice is enough, Hill said.
''We want to attract and retain top-quality people,'' he said. ''At some point, the community just has to decide what is it that we want.
''How important are these people? How important are these programs? What is the quality of education you want for your kids?''
John Higgins can be reached at 330-996-3792 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the education blog at http://education.ohio.com/