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School levy can't wait, Chardon board says
School levy can't wait, Chardon board says
By JOSEPH KOZIOL JR.
The Chardon Board of Education knows the state of the economy is going to make any tax request difficult at this time. But board members said they also know the district will face a $2.1 million deficit by 2011.
"The public is suffering," board member Paul Stefanko said when the board met in special session last week to discuss the best way to approach voters for a levy this May.
"It's so sad," board member Cynthia Sague said.
"It's just dismal," board President Blake Rear said.
But board members said they likely will have no choice but to put a levy before voters by May to stave off the deficit the district faces.
What form that levy would take is still to be decided as the board is looking at three possible avenues. The board said it could go for a traditional term levy, an earned income tax or a relatively new introduction for the area -- an incremental levy.
Munson Township resident Truman Parkinson urged the board to consider the earned income tax, saying it may be the fairest form to bring to voters now. He said many people have been put out of work, and about one-quarter of the voters are retired, living on fixed incomes. Earned income only taxes those working, allowing retirees to keep their pensions.
Mr. Rear said the board is open to all ideas at this time. He said the only certain thing is that the district is in need of money, as evidenced by a five-year forecast for the district.
School Superintendent Joseph Bergant II said the district will be making cuts, amounting to $1.25 million. About $250,000 will be cut in the elementary programs, $275,000 in the middle school, $150,000 in extracurricular activities and $95,000 in transportation. He said the cuts in transportation will not affect bus routes.
In addition, Mr. Bergant said, there will be needs the district cannot ignore, such as a $100,000 for boilers at Hambden Elementary School, $150,000 for computer equipment, $140,000 for two new buses and $100,000 for bus radios.
He said that pay-to-play also may become a regular part of extracurricular activities. He said the district now charges no more than $100 for some programs, with different rates for middle and high school students.
Mr. Bergant said he did not want to cut programs, but they may have to be paid for in a different way in the future.
He said the district has been frugal with taxpayers money, having one of the lowest cost-per-pupil ratios in the area. He said the district also held the line with no salary increases for teachers.
School Treasurer Stephanie Swain said the $2.1 million deficit could be trimmed by about $600,000 if permanent-improvement money could be used to pay utilities, a change in previous policy.
She offered four variations for a traditional levy, ranging from 4.5 mills to 5.3 mills. Only the 5.3-mill levy would keep the district in the black for the next five years. At the end of five years, the district would be $40,000 in the black, she said.
Mr. Bergant said with traditional levies, a pattern has developed since 1970. In the first year of a five-year levy, the district has a surplus, breaks even the next two and operates with a deficit in the last two.
He said the board may wish to consider an incremental levy, basically a form unheard of in this area. He said an incremental levy allows the district to collect the money as needed, allowing the public to keep more of it in their pockets. A 6.25-mill incremental levy would be needed to avoid a deficit, he said.
Mr. Rear said while he believed that the earned income levy may be the fairer approach, he knows it also would be difficult to win the support of a high-income resident, living in an apartment. He said it is volatile because if the economy worsens, people lose their jobs and the district loses its income. If the economy improves, the district ends up with a surplus.
Mr. Stefanko said he had concerns about using the permanent-improvement money for utilities, saying voters had been promised the money would be used for repairs, such as windows and roofs. "I don't think it's proper to change the intent," he said.
He said the earned income tax "makes a lot of sense." Mr. Stefanko said it wouldn't hurt unemployed, but it could cause pain for some still working. He said the person who took a reduction in pay would face a "double hit" with a tax increase through the earned income tax.
Geauga County's unemployment numbers may be the lowest in the state, Mr. Stefanko said, but that rate is over 7 percent, about double what it has been traditionally.
Mr. Stefanko said the board needs to show the public that it has managed tax dollars wisely, listing all the cuts the district has made over the past four years and all the cuts it plans to make.
"Even if we pass the levy, we should make cuts because that's what mom and dad are doing at home," Mr. Stefanko said.
Of all the options before the board, Mr. Rear said, the one that makes the most sense is one that keeps the district in the black for five years. He said the district does not to want to have to return to voters in two years, seeking more money.
The board, he said, will have to make a decision before the Feb. 18 filing deadline at the Geauga County Board of Elections.
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