The Switzerland of Ohio Local school district has enough money to continue running the district as is for the current school year and through the end of the 2014-15 academic year.
“Then we fall off the cliff, big time,” Superintendent John Hall said.
And even before things get to that point, Hall says “as is” isn’t good enough.
“We have right now – embarrassingly – a bare-bones academic program,” he said. “It’s not a good situation for our students from the standpoint that there’s so much more we could be offering our kids.”
The district is asking voters to approve a 7.72-mill emergency levy that would generate $3 million a year over five years to restore programs and personnel lost to steep budget cuts following the rejection of a continuing permanent improvement levy in 2012 and the failure of an emergency levy in May.
Hall said the district could use twice that amount but knows it cannot ask that of residents facing difficult economic times of their own, particularly with the closure of Ormet Aluminum’s Hannibal plant, which employed nearly 1,000 workers.
“Basically, this is a survival levy,” he said.
The immediate impact of Ormet on the district will be the loss of about $109,000 a year in property taxes, but a greater impact could follow as families who have lost jobs move out of the district, resulting in a decrease of $5,745 in state funding per student.
“If 100 kids go out, that’s (more than) half a million dollars,” district Treasurer Lance Erlwein said.
Students are already leaving the district via open enrollment to other schools, something district officials attribute to the decline in programs offered and larger class sizes.
In the current school year, there are 185 students going out through open enrollment and just 15 coming in, Erlwein said. Most of them are going to districts north of Switzerland, but 10 are attending Frontier Local Schools, a district that also accounts for eight students coming in to Switzerland.
“We lost about 30 gifted and talented students to other school districts,” Hall said, noting offerings for those students were greatly reduced by the budget cuts.
Hall came aboard Aug. 26, a little more than three months after voters in the district rejected an emergency levy that would have raised $2.5 million a year over five years. Following the vote, the board approved a variety of cost-saving measures, including the elimination of about 40 jobs, cancellation of plans to hire school resource officers to bolster building safety and hiking pay-to-participate fees for sports from $10 per student, per sport to $200 for the high school level and $100 for junior high.
Those came on top of the elimination of all elementary physical education and music teaching positions, shop and consumer science positions, the Beallsville Elementary principal job and all field trips that weren’t independently funded.
Leasing the mineral rights to the district’s three largest properties brought one-time bonus payments to the district totaling $1.2 million, Erlwein said. That buys some time before more cuts are necessary.
Hall and Erlwein did not go into what cuts might be made without the levy after 2014-15, preferring to discuss what will happen if it passes.
“We’re rebuilding the district by adding teachers,” Erlwein said.
Hall said he wants to see accelerated classes restored in the middle and lower grades.
“We need to be able to stretch our top students,” he said, noting students at the middle and lower-performing levels will rise along with them.
Hall said he’s been meeting with local groups and even people in their homes to discuss the levy and the need for it. He acknowledged some residents have a lack of trust with the district over past issues, but said that shouldn’t affect what’s happening now.
“People need to understand that this is their school district, and they are voting to help students in the district,” Hall said. “There are a lot of adult issues that are getting people to lose focus.”
Some frustration has been directed at changes made following the passage of a 28-year, 7.69-mill bond issue and permanent improvement levy.
Erlwein said construction of the buildings is not the reason the district is facing its current financial struggles, noting that money is separate and cannot be used for personnel or day-to-day operational costs. He and Hall pointed to the inefficiency of running the largest district, geographically, in the state, with transportation alone consuming more than 10 percent of the district’s budget. Personnel costs account for 74 percent of the budget, lower than is common in some districts.
Reductions in state funding are another area of concern. Switzerland is receiving the same amount it did last year thanks to a guarantee provision in the newest school-funding formula, but that is only in place for certain for the current and following fiscal year.
“We ended up deep on the guarantee,” Erlwein said. “That’s only a guarantee on the current biennium.”
Regardless of the outcome on Election Day, Hall said educators in the district will improve where they can. Instilling high expectations in staff and students, improving curricular alignment and focusing on improvements in specific grades and classes can all be accomplished without additional money.
But to go further, the district does need additional funding, Hall said.
Some high- and middle-performing districts increase their operating revenue regularly, he said. Switzerland hasn’t added new money for operations since 1995.