Columbus school board holds meetings with eye on fall levy

As expenses go up and revenue stays flat or shrinks, Columbus voters should expect to see a school tax levy on the ballot in November, district officials explained at the first of a series of four public meetings.

Treasurer Michael Kinneer said the school board has appointed a levy millage committee, that he chairs, and that committee will review his financial projections and his last five-year forecast submitted to the Ohio Department of Education.

"It’s too early to tell what will be done, but at some point the levy millage committee will make a recommendation," said Kinneer at the Jan. 28 meeting at Centennial High School.

The next community informational meetings will take place Feb. 4, at Champion Middle School on the eastside, and Feb. 11 at Wedgewood Middle School on the westside, and Feb. 13, at Marion-Franklin High School on the southside.

Additional tax dollars could be used to restore budget cuts, such as a shortened school day, Superintendent Gene Harris said.

"The Board of Education is really considering a levy for the fall of 2008 and one of the things that is our responsibility are to present some things to the board that need to be a part of that levy," Harris said. "One of the things we’re putting back on the table is the school day. Our students are going to have to have increased graduation requirements and those graduation requirements doesn’t just start at high school, they start at pre-kindergarten, so we need that time."

Kinneer said 75 percent of the district’s $651 million budget goes toward employee salaries and benefits.

Over $65 million is paid to charter schools, and $13 million is paid for utilities.

Kinneer said the district takes in $665 million in revenue, but that amount will begin to decrease soon.

The largest chunk of income the district receives is from real estate taxes, totalling $318 million, but that amount can only be increased by inside millage and new construction, due to the passage of House Bill 920 in the late 1970s.

The next largest piece of the revenue pie comes from state foundation payments of $5,565 per pupil, and $32 million in personal property taxes.

"You may have heard this tax is being phased out by state of Ohio and in two years the district will not receive any personal property tax," said Kinneer.

Kinneer projects expenses for the district could climb as high as $800 million by 2013, while the revenues remain basically the same.

"This is not unexpected; in fact, four years ago, you might recall in 2004, the voters of the district approved a 6.9-mill operating levy to avoid an operating deficit," Kinnear said. "The board indicated that the levy would last for four years, and it has from 2004, and today, 2008, we’re still in a situation where we have a positive balance."

At time of the last levy, the board appointed an audit and accountability committee which has worked with the board and administration to ensure district-spending remains within the prescribed limits, Kinneer added.

The Columbus school district serves 55,000 students, making it the largest school district in Ohio, with students speaking somewhere between 87 to 100 languages as their first language, Harris pointed out.

In addition, the district has seen a dramatic increase in the percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced price meals in the last five years, in addition to the district serving gifted and special needs students.

"We want to serve all our students, but financially, as Mr. Kinneer talks about, our general fund bears a lot of that burden. We do get money from the feds for our students with disabilities, but it’s not enough to cover the entire cost," said Harris.


Voters could also be asked to support the continuation of construction projects.


Building plan

Carol Olshavsky provided an update on the status of the Facilities Master Plan, of which there are seven proposed segments for construction with 18 to 20 projects in each segment.

The first two segments were finished so now there are 35 schools that will be rebuilt or renovated, and 45 schools either have or will be upgraded with new roofs or boilers.

Olshavsky said 17 of the 35 schools are finished now, six are scheduled for completion in the summer of 2008, eight could be completed by December, 2008, three schools will be completed by summer of 2009 and the Afrocentric Early College K12 school is on hold until a roadway project is finalized.

Olshavsky said the district voters have an opportunity to pass a new bond issue, which would complete another 18 to 20 schools without increasing the millage for the last bond issue voters approved in 2002.

Residents speak up

Community members at the meeting expressed concerned about the recent decision to pilot a program in the Linden area to place the kindergarten through sixth grade in one building and seventh through 12 grades in another.

Laura Beardsly, the parent of a middle-school student, said she is afraid her child would not get the same level support if seventh-graders were placed with high school students.

"We’re working with our staff, we’re working with our (operations) teams and what our goal is and what our intentions is and what will happen is that those seventh and eighth graders will be isolated in the building," said Harris.

Harris also said this would really be a good thing in the end because gifted students could be given advanced placements without concern about the resources to accomplish that.

As it is now, Harris said, the district does not have the staff or resources in all the schools to do this.

Brian Conrod, the parent of a middle school student, expressed concern for the younger students’ safety.

"There’s so much violence now, my 7th grader is going into a 12th grade environment. Kids don’t follow the rules, if they want to hurt someone they will," he said.

Harris went on to say that the Linden area pilot program and the district will take its time before any decision is made to expand the pilot program.

Mike Wiles, who ran a failed bid for a board seat in 2007 was in attendance and said he understood the need for another levy but he thought the board’s reaction to community inquiries at the meeting was off.

 "[Parents] had a little bit of complaints from the shortened school year and shortened school day, which is one of the major things we brought up in the campaign, and the biggest thing I heard in rebut to that is ‘Give us more money and we’ll give you what you want.’ And I don’t know if that’s going to get it done this year. We have to a bit more proactive with our answering rather than just saying ‘Give us more money and we’ll give it back to you,’" Wiles said.   

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