HEBRON – The odds are daunting, but the possibility that voters will renew Lakewood’s 4.9 mill emergency levy on November 7 is still alive after a tremulous board of education meeting Wednesday evening.
The levy raises $2.35 million per year which represents about ten percent of the district’s revenue. The renewal term is five years. Renewal will NOT increase taxes.
Board President Judy White opened the meeting, commenting there is “lots of business to take care of.” She then stood up and read a nearly one and one half page long Resolution of Censure directed at board member Steve Thorp. White said Thorp “has engaged in a pattern of conduct which disregards this principle of joint action and majority rule by repeatedly intervening in school affairs;…has further caused unsanctioned releases of opinions and information which could easily be misconstrued as being those of the Board of Education;” and…”in addition to exceeding his legal authority in the foregoing manner, has intentionally, or with reckless disregard for the consequence of his actions, impeded the orderly operation of the District by”…
Six claims of his actions impeding “the orderly operation of the District” were listed. The complete resolution appears nearby. The resolution resolved…”that the Lakewood Local School District Board of Education hereby expresses in no uncertain terms its strong disapproval of the foregoing conduct of Board member Mr. Steve Thorp; and…”that all administrators and other staff members of the Lakewood School District are hereby admonished and directed by the Board to consider any specific request made to them by Mr. Thorp to be the request of Mr. Thorp as an individual citizen only, and not as a representative of this Board, and to conduct themselves accordingly, unless presented with evidence that Mr. Thorp is acting upon the specific authorization of this Board voted on and approved by majority of this Board at a duly constituted meeting; and…”that should Mr. Thorp persist in the above-described actions, or be otherwise unable or unwilling conform his conduct to the Lakewood Local Schools Board of Education Code of Excellence and the Ohio School Boards Association’s Code of Ethics for Board Members, he should resign his position as a member of the Lakewood Local School District Board of Education.”
White then quickly moved that the Board approve the Resolution of Censure. Board member Bill Gulick quickly seconded it, with White quickly asking for roll call. It was approved 4-0 without any discussion or comment. Thorp was not given an opportunity to vote.
The resolution with its five “Whereas’” and three “Be it therefore resolved’s” appears to have been drafted or at least reviewed by an attorney. The resolution’s quick approval without any discussion or questions, coupled with its strong language and condemnation of a fellow board member makes it very likely that four board members – White, Gulick, Trisha Good and Tim Phillips – violated the Ohio Public Meetings Act by discussing Thorp’s censure outside of a public meeting. It was not discussed in open or closed session at the Board’s September 13, 2017, regular meeting and it did not appear on the agenda of the Board’s September 27,2017, special meeting.
Most of the large, standing room only crowd. appeared stunned by the Board’s swift censure. Gulick then angered much of crowd, opening with “Been stewing about this for a long time.” He said the teachers’ no confidence poll in Superintendent Mary Kay Andrews “doesn’t mean anything to me.” He said the teachers’ union president and vice president should resign their positions, then added that they should “resign as teachers.” Asking them to resign as teachers turned the stunned crowd into an angry crowd.
Gulick wasn’t finished. “All the harassment about our superintendent through Mr. Thorp is unbecoming as a man. He has bullied the administration…The bullying policy applies to the board.”
School board candidate Bill Pollard, whose daughters are Lakewood graduates, asked, “What has this district done to operate more efficiently?” “Start showing up at board meetings,” Phillips told him. Gulick added, “Normal people would.”
White said she had been “pushing this district forward for 12 years. “We are forward think- ing.” She went on to claim, “We have a football stadium because the community supported it.”
School board candidate and district parent Jonathan Lynch said he had been attending board meetings for over a year, asking questions to try to dispel rumors. He asked board members to listen tonight, prompting a round of applause.
A Buckeye Lake Village mother brought up bullying. “We need to do more than say we have a zero tolerance for bullying.” She said both her daughter and son have been bullied on school property, adding that her daughter was bullied off the cheer team after six years. She asked if the bullying policy is the same for athletes. White promised to follow up on her concerns.
Pollard asked why there is a rush to approve a contract extension for Andrews. “This should not be voted on until after the election and the people have spoken. Let the people decide who they want on the board.
Buckeye Lake resident Peggy Wells said, “It is tough to be the only one (Thorp) speaking out.”
A former Lakewood high school intervention specialist with two Lakewood graduates said, “Let’s avoid the cesspool of negativity.” She left Lakewood frustrated, but has no axe to grind since she now has an excellent job. She said Lakewood’s interventions “aren’t enough” nor is one foreign language starting in eighth grade. She also asked, “Why the hurry?” on the contract renewal.
After the first public comment period, board members moved quickly through fairly routine agenda. Patti Pickering, Director of District Services, reported that the percentage of students receiving free or reduced lunches fell from 46 percent last year to 38.7 percent so far this year. That could cost the district some funding, she said. Breakfast counts are up so far this year.
Pickering briefly recapped the district’s building projects. At the high school, the Student Success Center is almost complete while it will take a couple more weeks to complete the office security vestibule. At the middle school, the contractor is working on the final punch list. She reported that roof problems at Hebron Elementary are affecting the pre-school area. The football stadium is completed.
Four students were recognized for their elected positions on the county-wide Youth Leadership Council: Cameron Vayanky, Chief of Staff; Jenna Chorpenning, Administrative Director; and Representatives Laura Bowman and Mallory Janicki.
During her report, District Treasurer Glenna Plaisted said the cost of health insurance will only increase six percent for 2018. Board members approved a contract with Aetna for 2018. She also presented the state-mandated bi-annual (October and May) five-year financial forecast. She painted a grim picture if voters fail to renew the five-year emergency levy on the Nov. 7 ballot and a 10-year emergency levy that will run out in 2021. The five-year levy brings in $2.35 million a year with the 10-year levy raising nearly $3.7 million annually. If neither is renewed by voters, the district will have a prohibited negative cash balance of $8.3 million by June 30, 2022.
Plaisted said local property taxes represent 56.38 percent of the district’s revenue in fiscal year 2017 with business paying 35 percent. State aid represents 36.87 percent of the district’s revenue with the balance (6.75 percent) coming from fees, tuition, interest and open enrollment. She said the state legislature has lowered CAUV values, expecting a net drop of $6 million in agricultural values. Lakewood gets 29 percent of the state’s foundation of $6,020 per pupil. Lakewood spent $9,611 per pupil in fiscal 2017 compared to the state average of $9,150.
Board members unanimously approved a short personnel agenda without comment, including accepting the resignation of middle school football coach Gary Stratford who was recently arrested and charged with rape.
During her report, Andrews said the negativity and the rumors are not Lakewood. “My focus is about the kids.” She first came to Lakewood in January 2015 as acting superintendent to replace Jay Gault who was retiring. She had been Director of District Services at C-TEC. Andrews said she soon launched a facilities assessment, noting, “We have kids in 100 degree heat on the third floor at Hebron.” She talked with students about what they wanted. Some middle school students, noting the school’s condition, told her, “It feels like nobody cares about us.”
Andrews also spent about 20 minutes presenting a “District Update – A Snapshot of the Facts!” She dug deeper into the district’s recent 2016-2017 state report card, highlighting the accomplishments lost in the simple six letter grades. Lakewood received one-F, three-D’s, one-C and one-B. For example, Lakewood received a C in K-3 Literacy even though 100 percent of the third grade students met the Third Grade Reading Guarantee requirements compared to 93.7 percent statewide. Andrews agreed, “We need to look at foreign languages.” She also commented, “This is democracy in action tonight. I believe we will be better for this.”
During board comments, Thorp said, “I was going to turn in my resignation tonight, but I’m going to stay” as he tore up his letter. “Nice show,” White told him.
“I ask questions as an individual taxpayer in the district and as a school board member,” Thorp explained. “I can’t get an answer. I wasn’t brought up to speed on everything. I still have two years to go. I will be fighting for our kids.” Gulick and Good had no comments, and Phillips encouraged everyone to visit the Idea Foundry in Columbus. He accompanied some high school students and staff there earlier in the day.
White wasn’t finished with her comments. “Shame on you who drive all the negativity,” specifically criticizing Facebook commentators. Continuing her attack on Thorp, she said, “He’s come to disrupt this board.”
Responding to a comment from Jon Lynch about how just 15 people drove the stadium project, White said, “There’s considerably more than 15 people who drove this stadium project…We would have had a old farm house with new carpet…I’m proud of the decision to move forward there.”
Turning to the levy renewal, she said, “The emergency renewal is so important. We have to have that to move forward.” The only way to get a new elementary school is to pass the emergency levy renewal and approve the bond issue in May.
During the teachers’ union’s opportunity to comment, Lakewood Teachers Association Vice President Mandy O’Dell said, “We are lacking substitute teachers.” So far this school year she said 58 substitute positions haven’t been filled, forcing teachers to cover during their free period at the expense of tutoring students falling behind, speaking with parents, working on lesson plans etc. She wondered why substitutes were in short supply this year when the district has a “mile-long list of subs.” Though Lakewood is tied with Granville for the lowest sub pay in the county at $90 per day, she wasn’t ready to attribute the shortage to pay. She said Licking Heights does pay $115 per day. White thanked her for bringing up the problem.
During the second round of public comments, parent Earl Wallace presented a petition asking the board to postpone considering the superintendent’s contract renewal until next year. He garnered about 150 signatures in about four hours before the meeting.
Senior Cameron Vayansky eloquently criticized Gulick’s earlier comments about teachers. “Take a second to think about your words and actions,” he told Gulick. His heartfelt comments about teachers and their impact on students prompted a standing ovation from the crowd.
Licking Township Trustee and former Lakewood School Board member John Holman said, “They should ask for your resignation (Gulick’s). That is absolutely ludicrous.” He added, “I’m absolutely appalled if this board votes on renewing a contract tonight. He also commented on one foreign language. Sixty years ago when I was here we have three. “Forward thinking – no way.”
There is clearly a divide within the teaching staff on the no confidence vote. One teacher called it very inaccurate and misleading. “That vote did not speak for the teachers.”
A parent said it was sad to see a deputy outside the meeting tonight. He attributed a lot of the dispute to miscommunication. “The majority of the community is against a renewal contract for Mary Kay at this time. They are not against Mary Kay; they are against approving a contract extension at this time.” He said a majority was also against the football stadium when the board made that decision last December. He noted that the football stadium came in 92nd on the district’s facility assessment while Hebron Elementary was the top priority. “Her (Andrews) contract extension is not a priority now.”
He also pointed out, “A lot of the tone tonight started with you two (White and Gulick). You don’t need to do it tonight. Please wait and see what November brings.”
Board members unanimously agreed to go into an executive session at 8:36 p.m. to discuss the purchase of land for the new elementary school. They returned at 8:55 p.m. and unanimously authorized Andrews and Plaisted to negotiate the purchase of land from the Licking Fairfield Corporation.
A few minutes later, board members unanimously returned to executive session to consider Andrews’ contract. This time they returned at 9:15 p.m. After leaving executive session White announced, “No decisions have been made contractually.”
Her announcement was greeted with silence with only about half the crowd still present. Andrews had left during the second executive session. White’s terse statement left some people wondering if the extension would be approved at a special meeting before the election or at a meeting after the election but before the new board members take office. Most special meetings are held at 7:30 a.m. in the district office which is very inconvenient for many residents.
White and Gulick led board members to the edge of a cliff Wednesday evening. A majority, maybe all, wisely declined to jump off because they would have taken any possibility of renewing the emergency levy with them. White regularly touts community involvement on the Lakewood Finance Task Force and Elementary Planning Team.
The board hired David Conley, a government finance consultant, from Rockmill Financial Consulting, LLC. for $30,000 to assist on the stadium project financing and to lead the Finance Task Force.
White and Gulick must not have been paying attention when Conley noted at an early Task Force meeting, “The District’s past voter support has been challenging.” A recap of Lakewood’s history at the polls emphasizes the challenge. Going back to 1995, voters rejected seven straight attempts to approve a bond issue primarily to build a new high school. The first effort in 1995 sought $16.9 million to build a new high school and elementary school. Almost 60 percent of the voters rejected it. After six more rejections, voters finally approved a $15.6 million bond issue in 1998 primarily for a new high school. It garnered approval from 55 percent of voters.
The district’s success rate with operating levies isn’t much better. Voters have approved four new levies and renewed two levies since 1986. Voters rejected renewing or new levies 18 times since 1986, but recent history has been much better. Voters approved a 5.24 mill, five year emergency levy in 2013 and a 9.9 mill, ten year emergency levy in 2010.
Conley focused on the financing options and how to get voters to approve funds for a new elementary school and other district improvements. His $15,000 advice was wasted on White and Gulick. Less than three weeks before a critical election, White decides to attack a fellow board member whose primarily sin seems to be asking the same questions that district residents are also asking.
Then Gulick decides to attack teachers who believe there is a communication problem with the superintendent. Rather than trying to find out what prompted taking a vote of no confidence, Gulick immediately dismisses the vote and then demands that the top union leaders resign from their positions and from their teaching positions too.
Lakewood needs every positive vote it can get; the 10-year, 9.9 emergency levy passed by a handful of votes in 2010. White and Gulick cost the district far more votes than that tiny victory margin with their actions and words Wednesday night. White needs to listen to those who disagree with her and recognize that her way isn’t the only way.
White can probably save the renewal levy and the time line to get a new elementary school if she or a majority of the board would simply pledge that there will be NO vote on Andrews’ contract until 2018. Leaving the door open, as it is now, for the possibility of an early morning or post-election vote won’t save the renewal. White and Gulick, with Good’s and Phillips’ acquiescence to date, are tearing apart the district that they profess to love.