District fears ‘damaging cuts’ if levy vote fails

When Kettering voters go to vote on May 4, they’ll find a new 6.9-mill school operating levy on the ballot. School officials know the economy is tough and it’s not the best time to try to pass a levy, but they say it’s essential to pass it now.

“I don’t want us to have to go to the community and ask for more money now, but I don’t think I have a choice,” said Dr. James Schoenlein, Kettering superintendent. “Each year, inflation creeps up along with the money needed to pay for the daily operations of a school. At the same time, the amount of money we’re allowed to collect from taxpayers has to remain constant due to Ohio law. On top of that, state funding is reduced each year.”

Schoenlein said that with these three economic forces at work, every school district in Ohio has to go back to the voters for more operating money sooner or later. For Kettering, he said, the time is now. “We really need this money,” he said.

If passed, the school levy would cost the owner of a $100,000 home $17.58 per month, or $211 annually. According to school officials, the extra money is essential for the continued operation of the school district. If the operating levy doesn’t pass in 2010, officials estimate the district will face a $6.5 million deficit in the 2011-12 school year, which will then increase to a $20 million deficit in 2012-13.

However, a school district is not allowed to have a deficit, as Kettering School Board President Jim Trent points out. “By law, we can’t go into debt. The treasurer and Board of Education president have to sign documents that prove we have enough money to justify our budgets. If we don’t pass this levy, we have to make damaging cuts,” he said.

A wise investment … or not practical?

The prospect of lasting scars on the district because of budget cuts greatly worries school administrators. “The effects of cutting back, to the extent that would be necessary, would be devastating,” said Schoenlein. “Class sizes would rise and test scores would suffer. These effects, along with many others, would significantly diminish what is now a great school system.”

The superintendent added that the negative effects of cutbacks wouldn’t be confined to what’s inside the school house gates. “All people have an interest in voting for this levy,” said Schoenlein. “People should look at it as an investment – an investment in keeping their property values up and an investment in young people. Taxes for education are critical to the wellbeing of any community.”

Although investing in young people sounds good, some Kettering residents say it’s just not practical in today’s tough economic times. Bill and Marynel Bradley, longtime Kettering residents and tutors at John F. Kennedy Elementary School, are two of those people.

“Obviously, I’ve always been a strong supporter for education, especially as a teacher myself, but it’s a very hard time, especially for those in Kettering. Even though it will behoove the community to pass this levy, it’s going to be a very hard sell,” said Marynel Bradley.

Bill Bradley agrees. “The only people getting raises right now are the ones employed by the government,” he said. “A lot of people aren’t able to afford things they’ve always taken for granted. Houses are foreclosing, people aren’t going on vacation – the list goes on and on. Debt is becoming a normal part of our society. To pile on more taxes right now is just not right.”

Urgent need … or lack of belt-tightening?

Trent agrees that now is not a good time to be going to the community for money, but the money is needed now. If the levy doesn’t pass in May, the school board could try putting it back on the ballot in November, but so far the members are keeping an optimistic attitude. “No decision has been made about what we’re going to do if the levy doesn’t pass,” Trent said. “However, we don’t want to be thinking about what we could be doing in November. We just hope it will pass in May.”

Schoenlein is trying to maintain the same optimistic perspective optimism, but he also wants the community to understand urgency of passing the school levy sooner rather than later. If the levy doesn’t pass in 2010, there will be a one-year delay before the district would see any additional funds.

“You can always try again next summer,” he said. “But what people need to realize is that taxes are collected in the year after the vote, so even if, for some reason, we don’t pass the levy until next year, we wouldn’t begin getting the new money from the levy until 2012, and the district would be about $5 million in the red for that year. As a result we would have to make severe cuts over the summer of 2011.”

Some citizens, however, question whether the school board has really tightened its belt as much as it could.

“People’s approval of elected officials is the lowest it’s ever been, right now in the middle of this recession,” said Bill Bradley. “Most elected officials, such as the members of the school board, can’t control spending. They’re pitching it like it’s a fight for kids, but everyone else has tried to watch the way they’re spending money. Has the school board thought about doing that and maybe cutting down a little?”

School officials say the answer to that question is “yes.” According to Schoenlein, the district has tried to make significant cuts, wherever possible, without negatively impacting the education school instructors are providing to students. Over the past four years, Kettering Schools have made $7.6 million in cuts, including the elimination of 57 positions.

Voting yes … or voting no?

Despite these efforts, many people still believe that the school board should try to cut down more, instead of seeking more tax money from the residents of Kettering.

“Kettering has always had a long and very rich history of supporting the schools, but now is not the time for them to be pushing more taxes on us. They should be tightening their belts like everyone else. The bottom line is for people on a fixed income like us, a lot of people want our money. Vectren wants a few dollars, and so do AT&T and then the trash company, and when you only get say $2,000 a month, things start to build up and something has to give,” said Marynel Bradley.

But other Kettering citizens don’t think that taxes for schools should be the thing that gives. Kettering resident Annette Smith has a daughter who attends Fairmont High School. “I know times are tough, but we’ve got to pass this thing for the good of the schools,” she said. “I want my daughter to get the best education possible, and that’s why I’m going to vote for the levy on May 4.”

Schoenlein understands the Bradleys’ concerns, but he hopes many citizens will come to the same conclusion that Smith has.

“I absolutely understand these are tough economic times. I get that,” Schoenlein said. “I just hope that the citizens of Kettering can see that taxes for the school are a great investment that will pay off hugely in the end.”