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Nordonia tries to avoid state takeover with fifth levy try

By admin Published: October 30, 2011

The Nordonia Hills school district probably will slide into fiscal emergency and possible state takeover if voters reject a new property tax on Nov. 8.

The situation is so desperate that J. Wayne Blankenship, the district's superintendent of nine years, announced this week that he is retiring, effective Monday.

School board President Doug Masteller said Blankenship hoped his action would improve the levy's chances of passing. Masteller said some voters have rejected levies in the past because they are displeased with Blankenship's leadership.

''Wayne kind of recognized that and decided to get out of the way so that those people didn't have that excuse anymore to vote against the levy,'' Masteller said.

Nordonia is one of 21 area districts, including Akron, that have tax issues on the ballot. Two-thirds of the local districts are asking for new money totaling almost $58 million a year.

Statewide, there are 186 school issues on the ballot, but only a third are for new money, said Damon Asbury, director of legislative services for the Ohio School Boards Association.

Next month's general election is the first since Gov. John Kasich signed a two-year budget that cut deep into school funding, and districts are turning to their local residents for help.

''The overall reduction was $2.9 billion from K-12 education,'' Asbury said. ''A portion of that was the loss of federal stimulus dollars, which was close to $1 billion.''

Homeowners have felt the crunch of the recession on their own wallets, paying more for health care and gas while trying to hold onto jobs that often pay the same or less.

How it affects districts

So where does that leave local school districts? Rock, meet hard place.

In Akron, the school district passed new money in 2006 and stretched it a few years more than expected by closing buildings and cutting staff.

Support personnel, such as custodians, secretaries and warehouse workers, were the first to go.

''Many of those areas are staffed at the lowest level that they've been for years,'' said Superintendent David James. ''We've been lucky that we could make cuts in other areas and really try to keep those away from the classroom.''

Akron spends money more efficiently in nonteaching areas of the budget than the four largest school systems in the state, according to a report this year by Ohio Education Matters, a public policy think tank.

But expenses are outpacing revenue and officials estimate the district will be nearly $22 million in the hole by the end of the 2012-13 school year.

Passage of the 5.5-mill levy won't close the gap, officials said. At least $27 million more in cuts would be needed over the next three years. But if the district doesn't pass the levy, the budget would have to be slashed by at least $45 million.

Cuts that deep definitely would affect the classroom.

In trying to persuade voters to pass levies, school officials face the perennial struggle of explaining that taxes used to finance new buildings can't be used to operate them. That's especially true for Akron, which is the midst of massive school building program.

Barberton faces the same hurdle.

The district built a middle school that opened this fall and now needs to pass an operating levy.

Consolidating two middle schools into one saves money, officials said.

''We're going to see decreased costs because of the consolidation, but that's not going to come right away and we still are trying to recover from the state budget,'' said Assistant Superintendent Patti Cleary. ''We need the money right now in order to keep going and keep our teachers working.''

Some school officials are struggling with a new challenge: organized opposition to levies.

Districts in Portage County are learning that the local tea party is a force to be taken seriously. In the August special election, the tea party opposed Field's tax issue and supported the Rootstown tax. Field lost and Rootstown won. In this election, the tea party is neutral on Field and opposes Waterloo's levy attempt.

Tea party members see a better answer to ailing school budgets on the Nov. 8 ballot: Passage of Issue 2, the statewide referendum on Senate Bill 5.

The controversial law would limit collective bargaining rights for teachers and other public employees and mandate that they make a 15 percent contribution to health care.

''There are renewal levies that we are going to support, but there will be no new, additional school taxes that we will support in this election,'' said Tom Zawistowski, executive director of the Portage County Tea Party. ''The reason is because we really do feel like Issue 2 will have an impact and it will change things.''

Nordonia officials say their situation is so dire, they can't wait.

The northern Summit County district has failed four times to pass a levy. Now it's on the state's radar for possible takeover.

The five-year budget predictions that all districts must submit to the state every October estimates Nordonia Hills will have about an $8.5 million deficit by the end of the 2012-13 school year, which is more than 15 percent of this year's operating budget.

Without a new levy, the district probably would become eligible for state takeover. The state would loan Nordonia money to eliminate the deficit, but that would have to paid back with interest. Once the district becomes a debtor to the state, Columbus would have direct oversight of its finances.

So far, Nordonia has kept the wolf at bay by cutting busing to state minimums and winning some concessions from teachers, including wage freezes and an increase in contributions to health care from about 8 percent of the premium for a family up to 12 percent.

Nordonia officials say their levies are an especially hard sell because the district has an identity problem. It sprawls across Macedonia, Northfield Village, Sagamore Hills Township, Northfield Center Township and even a bit of Boston Heights.

As of last Monday, the district had not received an official endorsement from any of those communities, although the mayor of Macedonia has come out in support of the levy.

''He supports us along with one council person from Macedonia and everybody else claims they're neutral,'' Superintendent Blankenship said in an interview two days before announcing his retirement.

Blankenship said he can't understand why more officials aren't speaking out.

''You know if the school system goes down, your community goes down, so how could you not step up and support the schools?'' he asked.

Board President Masteller said plans call for replacing Blankenship with Assistant Superintendent Joe Clark, thereby saving about $140,000 a year by not filling Clark's job.

If Nordonia slides into fiscal emergency, it probably will have company.

Eight districts in Ohio are in fiscal emergency now, according to the state, and another five are in fiscal watch.

Last month, Roger Hardin of the Ohio Department of Education gave a sobering slide show to treasurers.

The graphic presentation maps the six districts with projected imminent deficits last year. This school year, the number jumped to 28. Next year, it soars to 135 districts out of 614.

And those gloomy projections were made before the legislature slashed education funding in the new state budget.

John Higgins can be reached at 330-996-3792 or jhiggins@thebeaconjournal.com. Read the education blog at http://education.ohio.com/.

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