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Education

School districts face tough choices if ballot issues fail

By admin Published: March 2, 2012

The Woodridge school district covers nearly 43 square miles of hilly terrain from North Akron and Cuyahoga Falls deep into the Cuyahoga Valley National Park beyond Peninsula into a sliver of Brecksville on the north side.

So the district spends $1.6 million a year to provide bus service to every student from kindergarten to high school

''We have the national park sitting right in the middle of the district,'' said Superintendent Walter Davis. ''We have school buses that are 22 and 20 years old with 300,000 and 400,000 miles on them. Our transportation advisers tell us we should be replacing three buses a year. We can't afford to do that. Right now we're lucky to replace one bus a year.''

Without new operating money, the district may have to eliminate busing to the high school and for any younger students who live within two miles of school.

That's one of the reasons Woodridge is asking voters to pass a new property tax Tuesday. Woodridge is among a dozen districts in the area with tax issues on Tuesday's primary ballot and the only one in Summit County looking for new money.

Waterloo and Field will try again for additional taxes in Portage County. Two districts, Buckeye in Medina County and Triway in Wayne County, are seeking earned income taxes, and Chippewa in Wayne County is seeking to renew an earned income tax voters passed in 2007. Canton Local hopes to pass a bond issue to build a new high school and middle school. Five districts will try to renew existing property taxes.

Woodridge passed a new property tax in 2004 that was designed to last five years. The district squeezed two more years out, largely with help from federal stimulus money that won't be renewed. Meanwhile, property values have dropped for the first time in decades and expenses are rising, especially health and retirement benefits, said Treasurer Deanna Levenger.

The district projects an almost $600,000 deficit at the end of the 2013-2014 school year. The next year, it plunges to more than $5 million in the red, which would be about a quarter of the district's annual budget.

''We go off the ledge,'' Levenger said. ''I'm not even sure how you cut that much money out of a budget, honestly.''

Woodridge trimmed $1.4 million from the budget for this school year and the board has ordered more cuts, which must be made regardless of whether the levy passes next week.

''They want us to trim another $400,000 in our budget for the coming school year, an unfortunately that's going to have to be personnel related,'' Davis said.

The district signed a new teachers contract last year that froze base pay, but not step increases for experience and advanced degrees. The union also agreed to move from a fixed amount for health care, which didn't adjust when the cost went up, to a 7 percent premium contribution that significantly increased the employee share.

''That was a huge change for us,'' Davis said. ''It about doubled it.''

Pay cuts considered

Davis has considered an across-the-board pay reduction that would cut every employee's salary. Although state law permits such reductions, legal observers say that any district that tried to impose such a cut without union cooperation would face a tough legal challenge. Woodridge would have to cut everyone's salary by 32 percent to eliminate the projected $5 million deficit in 2015, according to a Beacon Journal analysis.

The 6.83-mill levy on the ballot next Tuesday is expected to bring in about $3 million a year.

It would cost the owner of a $100,000 home, who now pays about $1,100 a year for school taxes, an additional $193 a 17 percent increase.

If the district fails to pass the levy, the board is considering several options including pay-to-participate fees for sports and closing school buildings for public use after hours.

''There really isn't a downtown Woodridge,'' Davis said. ''The school district is kind of the hub for things, scout troops, people who want to get a pickup game of volleyball going, they all use our facilities.''

The district offers full-day kindergarten at no charge, but that could be eliminated, too.

''Some people view it as a luxury. They don't have it in Cuyahoga Falls city, which is our neighboring district, why do we need it?'' Davis said. ''It certainly has made an impact on the achievement of our young students because they have that full-day experience.''

And then there's that fleet of 33 buses that logged 259,740 miles last year, not counting field trips or athletics.

The state requires busing only for elementary and middle-school students who live more than two miles from their school. The district could save money by adopting those state minimums.

About 27 percent of the district's 2,000 students live in Akron, and another 64-plus percent come from Cuyahoga Falls. Six percent of students live in Peninsula, and the rest are scattered among Stow, Hudson, Boston Heights and Boston Township.

The district doesn't know yet how many children would be affected by cutting bus service to state minimums.

''The kids from Cuyahoga Falls who are in grades three through five would likely get transportation because it's more than two miles out to Peninsula,'' Davis said. ''But then they would get to middle school, and there wouldn't be because it's probably less than two miles to the middle school.''

If Woodridge cannot pass a tax this year, the soonest the district could be collecting on a new tax would in January of 2014, the same year the district slides into deficit.

Another district in trouble

But the situation is even more urgent in Medina County's Buckeye school district, which is trying to close a $1 million deficit this year and avoid a nearly $4 million deficit next year.

Buckeye will try to pass a 1 percent earned income tax for district residents.

The tax would apply to salaries, but not retirement or unemployment benefits, which favors seniors and the unemployed. It wouldn't tax dividends or capital gains. It also spares farmers and other owners of large tracts of land from increased property taxes.

But for people earning salaries, the tax would dramatically increase their contribution to the schools, according to a Beacon Journal analysis.

The owner of a $100,000 home who makes $50,000 a year would pay an additional $500 in earned income tax, a 63 percent increase in total taxes for schools. Triway in Wayne County is asking for 0.75 percent earned income tax, which would increase school taxes for the owner of a $100,000 home making $50,000 a year by 57 percent.

Buckeye Superintendent Brian Williams said the district is trying an earned income tax because voters have rejected property taxes 10 times in a row.

''If we're not successful now, we would anticipate in early next year to begin borrowing from the state and go into fiscal emergency,'' Williams said.

The Chippewa school district was one of the first in the state to pass an earned income tax five years ago. Voters originally approved a 1 percent tax in 2007, two years after the state legislature allowed school districts to enact wage-only income taxes that didn't bite into pensions, dividends and income from interest.

''Now we're in the boat of having to renew it,'' said Chippewa Superintendent David Fischer.

He said voters have appreciated that their property taxes have stayed even in tough economic times.

''We're not asking for any new money,'' Fischer said. ''We believe it's going to pass with flying colors.''

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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