Wednesday, April 23rd, 2014

7.85-mill levy and bond to face voters

Voters in the Columbus City School district will have at least one issue to consider on the Nov. 4 ballot.

At a special meeting on June 27, the board of education voted to place a 7.85-mill permanent operating levy and a $164 million bond issue in front of voters, although it has yet to be determined if the two will be combined as one issue or presented to voters separately.

Operating levy

The levy, which will generate an estimated $77 million each year for the district, would cost the owner of a $100,000 an additional $240 per year.

If passed, funds from the levy would help lengthen student days. In 2006, the Columbus City Schools Board of Education voted to reduce the school day by one period for middle school and high school students as a cost saving method. This money would bring back that period and pay for additional teachers that become necessary with the extension of the day.

Levy money would also help the district create four new theme-based schools. These are schools that specialize in one area of study, such as math and science or the arts. According to Columbus City Schools Superintendent Gene Harris, one theme-based school would be implemented in each quadrant of the district.

Harris added that several board members have been approached about the need for such a school on Columbus’ Westside, and this is something that could happen with the passing of the levy.

The addition of the four theme-based schools would not happen all at once, but would be phased in.

According to Harris, the new schools would likely be placed in existing buildings.

Also with the passing of the levy, voters could expect to see a class size reduction in grades kindergarten through third grade.

“This is what we just did in grades four and five,” said Harris. “I think it will have a better impact if we do it at the K-3 level, where we are starting the strong literacy focus.”

Funds from the levy will also go towards Ohio Core Implementation, although this is also something that will be phased in. The Ohio Core, which consists of new, stricter graduation standards for Ohio high school students will take effect when the current seventh-graders are seniors. Rather than implement the new programs into middle and high schools now, this plan opts to wait until those students reach the high school level.

“We can support our students with this approach. I wouldn’t recommend it if I didn’t think it would work,” said Harris.

She added that the postponing of Ohio Core implementation would allow the district more time to find teachers to fill the new positions needed for the program.

Board Member Stephanie Groce agreed with Harris’ phase-in plan, saying, “You can’t go out and buy all of your furniture in one day.”

Finally, the funds approved through the levy would add to the district’s Safe and Secure Buildings policy by adding additional security staff where needed.

Bond issue

The bond issue, which is being touted as “no new taxes” would have a life of 24 years. The no new taxes scenario is possible, because the district hopes to take advantage of an upcoming reduction in debt service for existing bonds. The new bonds, if approved by voters, would pick up where the old debts are falling off, keeping the collection rate at its current level, 3.9 mills. This means that without the bond, the collection rate for those living in the district would go down.

With the bond issue, future taxpayers, including those who move into the district during the time of collection, would be subjected to the same rate of taxation. Any growth in population or assessed valuation can be used to pay off the principal more rapidly, or to lower taxation rates for residents.

Money collected from these bonds would  continue the implementation of the Facilities Master Plan. This plan includes the acquisition of land and the construction of new buildings, as well as the renovation of old buildings where possible. Sequences one and two of the plan are being implemented on schedule and on budget and are a result of a bond issue passed in 2002. These new funds would support portions of phases three and four.

These new and improved facilities would include the labs needed for the Ohio Core standards and would cost an estimated $123 million.

The bond issue would also help the district begin to replace their aging fleet of buses.

According to Harris, while the portion of bond money set aside for bus purchases, $22 million, is not enough to replace the entire fleet, it will replace about half of the district’s buses, drastically reducing the average age of the fleet.

The district would also used money from the bond issue to update and refresh all district laptop and desktop computers, as well as purchase new textbooks.

Budget cuts

The district also plans to make some budget cuts with their request for additional funding.

In this plan, the district will close six schools, although it has yet to be decided which ones.

According to Harris, the buildings will be closed based on attendance.

The district also aims to reduce their yearly budget by $18-20 million per year, although they have yet to announce where those cuts will come from.

The new plan also puts on hold Harris’ controversial plan to eliminate middle schools.

Harris explained that while many in the district are not yet comfortable with the idea of sending seventh and eighth-graders into the high schools, she does feel that it would be in the best interest of the district and hopes to address the issue again in the future.

“We do need additional conversation on this issue within the district but I still think it’s a good strategy,” said Harris.

The board has said that this levy would last the district three years, during which time they would not need to return to the voters with additional levies.

The board made a similar promise in 2004, when they passed their most recent operating levy. This is the first time the board has approached voters with funding requests since that time.

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