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Next try for schools will be property tax
Next try for schools will be property tax
By JOSEPH KOZIOL JR.
The Chardon Board of Education will return to a traditional property tax this November as it attempts to stave off another $2.5 million in cuts and possibly a state takeover.
The board voted 3-2 last week to seek an emergency, five-year, 4.75-mill levy, projected to raise $2.85 million annually for the school district. The tax would cost $131.40 a year for each $100,000 of home valuation.
The levy comes after voters decisively rejected a 1 percent earned-income tax issue placed on the May ballot. It was the district's first attempt at a tax measure other than a property tax.
The Geauga County Auditor's Office has adjusted the amount on the levy to 4.29 mills, because emergency levies are based on dollar amounts sought to be raised.
School board President Blake Rear said district Treasurer Stephanie Swain is investigating the revision in the levy amount, because the adjusted figure is based on 100 percent collection, which is a rarity.
The board will take a final vote on the issue July 26, he said.
The district has completed $1.25 million in cuts in the past year, and School Superintendent Joseph Bergant II said another $2.5 million will need to be cut if voters do not provide additional funding.
Mr. Rear and school board member Paul Stefanko voted against the measure.
Mr. Stefanko restated his position that the state of the economy should be considered in taking an issue to voters. He said foreclosures are up in the district, as is unemployment, which is in the range of 7 percent. Average incomes are down 4 percent, and property values are declining, he said. "It's the worst economy in the past 70 years."
Mr. Stefanko maintained that school officials should not seek a levy higher than 2 mills.
Mr. Rear said, while everyone points to the 3-1 margin of defeat for the income-tax issue, he does not believe a property-tax measure would have fared better. He said he would prefer that the board consider an income-tax issue again.
But other school board members said they believe they are not asking too much of property owners.
Board member Cynthia Sague said the board has been burdened by rising costs which it has no control over, just as the public does. She said she believes that the estimated $150 cost per $100,000 of valuation is not too high a price to pay. "Personally, I don't think $150 is that much," she said.
She said a family may have to make personal sacrifices, such as not eating out as much, but it's worth it. "Education is the most important thing we can give someone in our community," she said.
Board member Deborah Seenarine-Wilson agreed. "We all find money to spend on things we want," she said.
She said everyone lives on a fixed income to some extent, but the estimated $150 cost is "not that much."
Board member Lawrence Reiter said, while the money is needed, the board needs to look at cutting special-education costs. He suggested a performance audit be conducted in an attempt to cut those costs.
Of the district's nearly $40 million annual budget, about $11 million is spent on special education, much of it ordered by the state, to serve about 15 percent of its students, officials said.
Mr. Stefanko said, if the district was not forced to deal with special-education costs, there would be no need for a levy. He called the issue a "runaway train" as costs for those programs have risen 90 percent in the past five years.
Mr. Rear said many of the requirements of special education are mandated by the state.
He said people fear that there will be a state takeover of the school district if it falls into financial distress, but the truth is the state took over 20 years ago with mandates that force the local schools to continue to find more money.
One of the more recent mandates is an all-day, everyday kindergarten, which is forcing the district to hire four more teachers, he said.
Mr. Rear said state legislators, who impose the unfunded programs, have continually ignored for the past decade four Ohio Supreme Court rulings that relying on property taxes for school funding is unconstitutional. "They don't want to solve the problem, but they have no problem telling us we have to have all-day, everyday kindergarten," he said.
Mr. Stefanko said it is the failure of state legislators that has placed the burden on the local taxpayers. "We need to get legislators who are more concerned with doing what's right, rather than being re-elected," he said. "There are no Thomas Jeffersons in Columbus."
Mr. Bergant said unfunded mandates become more difficult every year to implement as the state continues to cut allocations to school districts. He said he anticipates at least another 10 percent cut in the next biennium.
"The state's definition of local control is the local people pay for it," he said.
He said one resident asked what would happen if the district refused or "pushed" the state when it issues a mandate. He said the state would simply take away all state funding.
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