The specific effects on the Frontier Local school district if the five-year, 9.19-mill emergency levy on the Nov. 5 ballot is rejected by voters have not been determined.
But the changes – which could include closing one or even two schools, shifting to grade-specific buildings, cutting elementary physical education and music again and eliminating positions that support children in need of additional math and reading help – would likely be drastic.
“I think passage of the levy saves Frontier,” Superintendent Bruce Kidder said.
If approved by voters, the levy would generate $550,000 a year and cost the owner of residential property valued at $100,000 an additional $321.65 a year in property taxes. The money would fend off deficit spending for at least a couple of years and allow the district to keep some services that had been eliminated earlier or are in jeopardy due to state and federal funding cuts, administration officials have said.
“The state isn’t going to step in and bail us out, and I’ve got to turn to the local community to see what they will support,” Kidder said.
Some residents haven’t made up their minds yet.
Newport resident Charles Thompson, 69, has grandchildren attending schools in the district, but said the increase in taxes has him concerned.
“Since I’ve been retired for 10 years, I don’t have much to go on to begin with. So I’ll probably be voting against it,” he said, adding he could still change his mind.
Lawrence Township resident Christy Cobb, 29, who has a son that attends nearby Lawrence Elementary School, reacted to the amount a property owner would have to pay on the levy with a “good grief” but said she needs more information before deciding how she’ll vote.
“I’ll probably have to go to the next couple of (board of education) meetings and see what they have to say,” she said.
One thing Cobb would like to know is if passage of the levy would keep Lawrence Elementary open.
That school – the smallest in the district in terms of enrollment and the oldest, yet cheapest to operate, building – has been considered for closure in recent years, which generated a strong backlash from the community. Kidder said the fate of Lawrence isn’t as simple as passage of the levy means it stays open and failure means it closes. That would be up to the board of education, which will have three new members in January.
Past cost-cutting proposals have included converting Lawrence to a district-sponsored charter, or conversion, school; closing Lawrence and sending all kindergarten-through-third-graders in the district to either New Matamoras or Newport Elementary and all fourth-through-sixth-graders to the other; or closing Lawrence and one of the other elementaries and having one elementary school for the entire district.
Cobb said she doesn’t like the idea of grade-level buildings, especially since it would mean her three children would wind up going to three different schools for at least one year.
“They’re not really making sense with what they’re doing,” she said.
Those options were discussed in the spring, but none were pursued as the board and administration waited for the state’s biennial budget to be finalized. Kidder said everything would be back on the table if the levy fails.
“If I don’t have money to operate the district, I’ve got to come up with every option I can to give the community and the board options,” he said.
That would also include putting a levy before voters again in 2014, Kidder said.
Due to changes in state funding and declining enrollment, the district spent approximately $600,000 more than it took in during the 2012-13 school year, and Kidder said it is still expected to be $300,000 to $400,000 in the red this year. The district’s cash reserves are at around $1 million.
The new school funding formula is projected to increase the district’s state aid by 2.1 percent this school year and 0.8 percent the next. That’s lower than some proposals had included, and Kidder noted it’s still contingent on enrollment. That not only means they lose more than $5,000 in funding for each student that leaves the district, it makes the district look wealthier in the state formula because fewer students increases the per-pupil property valuation.
“It’s like a double whammy for us,” Kidder said. “The income in the community didn’t go up; the property value in the community didn’t go up, but we got wealthier.”
Passage of the levy would mostly allow the district to maintain its current services, including recently returned elementary physical education and music. As a result of the federal sequestration, the district recently lost $60,000 that supported a pair of Title I teachers, who provide intervention service for students who need help in subjects like math and reading. Rather than eliminate the positions, leaving one Title I teacher each at Newport and New Matamoras, the board agreed to fund their positions out of the general fund. But those positions could be on the chopping block without new revenue from the levy, Kidder said.
Passage of the levy could also allow the district to make some additions. Kidder said he would like to see art back in the elementary schools and a Title I teacher working with middle school students again.
Other uses for the money would be maintenance of existing buildings and upgrading technology. Kidder noted that state tests will soon be required to be taken on computers.
“In order for kids to be successful, they’ve got to understand the computer, not just the test question,” he said. “Not all of our children have access to computers (at home).”
The levy is not being sought because the district has been spending extravagantly or plans to do so with the new money, Kidder said. Frontier’s teachers already have the second-lowest 30-year earning potential in the state, and the district has lost teachers after 15 years because they can make more in nearby districts, even if their seniority takes a hit.
“We’re not asking for anything more than to help the kids in the district,” Kidder said.