Levy vote stirs strong emotions on both sides

Levy vote stirs strong emotions on both sides

On Nov. 2, voters will decide whether the Kettering City Schools will get what officials say is a badly needed economic shot in the arm. That shot comes in the form of a new 4.9-mill operating levy.

Voters rejected the school district’s plea for a larger 6.9-mill levy last May. The vote wasn’t overwhelming, 7,160 to 6,520, but enough voters disapproved or simply felt they didn’t have anything to spare because of difficult economic times.

“I think the message we heard from voters in May was that everyone is doing more with less, and the school district needs to do that, too,” said Fairmont Principal Dan Von Handorf. 

The district responded to the levy defeat by cutting $2.5 million from the budget this past summer and putting the smaller levy on the ballot for November. The levy would cost the owner of a $100,000 home $150 per year and would raise about $6.4 million annually.

What’s at stake?

In September, Superintendent Dr. James Schoenlein told the Dayton Daily News that if this levy fails, the district will eliminate all extracurricular activities – including sports and band – next school year. He said busing would also be reduced to state minimum requirements.

“Almost all extracurriculars will be cut if the levy does not pass,” Schoenlein told The Flyer recently. “In addition, 30 to 50 teachers will have to be cut from across the district. If we don’t pass this levy in November, this school district is going to be very different. It won’t be the Kettering school system people have known for decades.”

As Schoenlein points out, the levy failure in May has already been felt. “The school district has had to cut 40 percent of the gifted program, to name just one example,” he said.

Jim Trent, president of the Kettering Board of Education, feels the levy issue goes well beyond simple issues of money and budget. “The Kettering City School District is the No. 1 asset of the City of Kettering,” he said. “The citizens will see property values decrease if the levy fails, and the city will lose part of an image that has been with the community for 50-plus years.”

Cuts, concessions and concerns

In response to the levy defeat in May, Kettering administrators and staff have looked for ways – big and small – to tighten the district’s belt. “Everyone has to live with less during this recession,” said Schoenlein. “So does the school district.”

The district closed Moraine Meadows Elementary School, and hiring has slowed to a trickle despite retirements and resignations. “Our administrative staff, for example, has been cut to where it probably has the lowest pupil-administrator ratio in the county,” said Trent.

Kettering teachers and administrators have also agreed to a pay freeze next year.

Schoenlein is cautiously optimistic that the cuts, concessions and smaller levy request will attract more “yes” votes. “I feel hopeful about this levy,” he said. “I think we have a fighting chance.”

But it’s not only school officials who are talking about the levy. Students and teachers also have strong opinions on the issue.

Sophomore Cassidy Fink believes passing the levy is a must. “It needs to pass because the levy funds a lot of art and music programs that are needed at Fairmont,” said Fink, who is involved in many of Fairmont High School’s musical ensembles.

Junior Joe Barton also wants the levy to pass, and he feels the community will come through and support it. “I think if it doesn’t pass, it will next year,” said Barton. “People wouldn’t want us to live with a school without extracurriculars.”

Many students, however, wonder if their parents have the money to pay extra taxes due to the economy. “People don’t have much money to pay for taxes because of the recession,” said sophomore Jessica Fry.

Fairmont Latin teacher David Vesely doesn’t picture a good outcome if the levy fails again. “Should the levy fail, teachers eventually will be laid off and class sizes will increase, having an adverse effect on students’ quality of education,” he said.

But Vesely doesn’t think it will come to that. “I think it’ll pass, because the city of Kettering has a history of supporting the schools and understands schools’ importance to the community,” he said.

Community viewpoints

Shanon Lawrence, mother of J.E. Prass first-grader Max Lawrence, says she’s going to vote for the levy to “invest in my son’s future.” She also believes people need to think further than just paying for schools, because the levy will also help with the value of homes. “If you care about your home, then you care about your schools and vice versa,” she said.

Martha Homan shares many of the Lawrence’s views. Homan has two children, A.J., a kindergartner at Prass, and 2-year-old daughter, Alexis. She thinks the levy needs to pass because further cuts could increase class sizes, demoralize teachers and reduce learning. “This scares me because my son is just starting, and these are his most important years,” said Homan.

Retired teacher Ann Simpson supports Kettering’s levy and every levy, no matter what district she lives in. “Education is a tried and true value in the country,” she said. To her, the levy passing is “something that we need to do ethically for the next generation.”

Anti-levy sentiment remains

But by no means is everyone in the community supporting the levy.

Retired chemical engineer Lenny Dabbelt says he cares about the community and schools, but with the economy the way it is now, he can’t afford it. “Being retired puts a strain on money. You don’t have as much as you used to,” he said.

Money – or the lack of it – forms the basis of levy opposition by members of the political action committee Citizens Advocating for Responsible Government, too.

CARG member Robert Scott, who is also the founder and president of the Dayton Tea Party, is one of those people. “We’re all for quality schools,” said Scott. “I, myself, am a product of Kettering City Schools and was very active when I was there. I have nothing against the school system; I just don’t think they should be coming out trying to get more money.”

Scott says times are tough, and many Kettering citizens simply cannot afford an increase in their taxes.

“On my street alone, my mother lost her job and just recently found another job, I have a neighbor who runs a restaurant and is taking 40 to 50 percent salary decreases, and I have another neighbor whose kids go to Kettering City Schools, but she’s currently unemployed. And that’s just part of one street. A lot of people are hurting and can’t afford this,” Scott said.

Trent says he understands the needs of his fellow Kettering citizens but also recognizes his responsibility as school board president. “School board members pay taxes like other citizens. I don’t have children in the schools, but I don’t mind paying taxes to give every child an opportunity to succeed in school,” Trent said. “I feel really sorry for those who have lost their jobs and wish them well in getting employment. However, we have to do what we can do to provide a quality educational program for our students, and I will never give up on them.”

Besides, Trent asked, “is there any good time to put a levy on the ballot?”

Scott also noted that while other people have been taking cuts in salaries or have been laid off, Kettering teachers’ salaries have continued to rise. “Teachers have been getting raises all throughout this recession,” he said. “Even now as they take a pay freeze, that’s not on the average 2 percent step increases, just on the money they usually get on top of that.”

Rebecca Templeton-Owens, a Fairmont teacher and president-elect of the Kettering Education Association, said she feels the pay freeze really is a sacrifice for teachers and that Scott is painting a somewhat inaccurate picture.

“It is true that teachers will continue to receive step increases and class increases because it’s only right. They are a way to show seniority and to honor those of us who have taken more classes – classes that teachers have to pay for our of their own pocket,” Templeton-Owens said. “But our salary will not increase like it did last year, which was the lowest raise in 25 years.”

She added that the pay freeze is really a pay cut for most of teachers because of increases in health insurance costs.

Music and athletics at risk

CARG’s Scott also said he isn’t impressed by Schoenlein’s vow to cut extracurricular activities if the levy fails in November. “This is a scare tactic, and quite frankly gutter politics,” he said. “I don’t think they will get rid of extracurriculars. The public outcry would be too much.”

But some people such as Fairmont Music Director Michael Berning take Schoenlein’s comments very seriously. “If the levy fails, it’s going to affect all music programs: marching band, choirs, jazz ensembles, Fusion, Eleventh Hour, the musical, etc.,” Berning said. “Essentially, all after-school music programs will be cut if the levy fails.”

The effects of such a levy failure would go beyond just extracurriculars and inevitably would affect classroom instruction, Berning insists. “Teachers will be laid off if the levy fails, and because of this, classes will be cut, which means fewer music classes and students.”

Berning fears such cuts would bring a great music program to its knees. “We have worked hard to get where we’re at. If the levy doesn’t pass, then everything goes out the window,” he said. 

Athletic Director Brian Donoher feels that the schools are making tremendous progress with the $2.5 million that they’ve already cut from the budget. He hopes citizens recognize the value of athletic and other after-school opportunities. “I think extracurriculars are important because it gives students ways to learn life lessons outside of the classroom,” he said.

As a member of the community, Donoher doesn’t question the levy. “I see it as an investment in my property,” he said.

Different visions of the future

Scott is outspoken and blunt in his view of what needs to happen. “The school board is bleeding us dry,” he said. “They’re going to have to give students the same quality of education for less money. That is simply going to have to be the future.”

But Trent doesn’t see how such a future is possible. “We have lowered the amount from 6.9 to 4.9 mills. We have cut $10 million out of the budget in the last five years, closed a school, and reduced the support, administrative and teaching staff significantly,” he said. “Yet, some people will say we haven’t done enough. Any more cuts will see a dramatic drop in the quality of the education provided to our students.

“All we want is what’s best for our children and students,” added Trent. “We have cut, cut and cut some more. The Board of Education has been prudent with taxpayers’ dollars while striving to provide a quality education. The teachers have done a magnificent job and our school system achieved the highest rating that can be achieved on the Ohio Department of Education’s Report Card – Excellent with Distinction. That says enough about our school system, doesn’t it?”

The Kettering School Board is having meetings at several elementary schools to talk to the community about the operating levy. If you are interested, click HERE for more details.