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Board members approve $721,276 in cuts

MILLERSPORT – It took nearly seven hours over two days this week, but Walnut Township Local School board members have unanimously reduced expenditures for next school year by $721,276.

The decision came after a nearly four-hour special meeting Wednesday evening. Board members had previously rejected Superintendent Randy Cotner’s reduction plan by votes of 3-2 on Jan. 12 and 4-1 on Monday, Feb. 3.

The approved cuts are based on Cotner’s original reduction plan with some significant changes. Board members kept the following cuts from his plan:

• Eliminate six teaching positions: family and consumer science (teacher is retiring), junior high/high school language arts, junior high/high school social studies, elementary technology, foreign language and elementary librarian;

• Eliminate two part-time custodians; and

• Reduce bussing to a single route.

Board members decided to save two teaching positions on Cotner’s list – elementary physical education and instrumental music and to retain extracurricular activities. They decided to cut another teaching position after the junior high math teacher decided to resign at the end of the school year. Board members added another $7,800 in savings by cutting administrator’s – superintendent, treasurer, junior high/high school principal and elementary principal – contracts by five days. Board members also hope to retain the savings from going to one school bus route, but allowing all students to ride. High school students will not be bussed the rest of this school year. Maintenance & Transportation Supervisor Bill Yates and bus drivers have been working on the new plan.

The revised reduction plan approved Wednesday evening cuts costs by $713,436 next school year. Later this month, Cotner plans to discuss $137,000 in contract reductions with the Walnut Township Education Association. If those reductions are approved, cuts would total $858,278 for next school year.

District Treasurer Kirk Grandy said the reduction goal is now $836,000 based on his latest five year forecast. He believes the district can get a 30-day extension on filing its deficit elimination plan to March 10 based on the $713,436 in cuts approved Wednesday evening. “This could be up to $858,000 in a month,” he said.

Board members spent nearly two hours Wednesday evening recording suggestions for additional savings from the audience of staff members, parents and district residents. Suggestions include:

• Paying staff members a portion of the savings from not taking the district’s health insurance;

• Joining a health insurance cooperative; to date the district has been able to do better on its own, but will check again;

• Implement an academic fee for high school students to cover supplies and materials;

• Limit the number of assistant coaches and encourage more volunteer coaches;

• Several coaches have volunteered to drop their stipend payments;

• Possible pay to ride the bus fee;

• Corporate sponsorships for some teams;

• Eliminate one principal’s position;

• Across the board pay cut for all staff;

• Aggressively try to collect the $500,000 in back property taxes due the district;

• Base and step pay freezes; and

• Eliminate the Dean of Students/ Athletic Director position and return to paying stipends for both jobs.

Board members had originally planned to consider each suggestion Wednesday evening, but dropped that idea as the meeting entered its third hour and board members coalesced around President Tom Cumbow’s revision of Cotner’s plan.

“We can always add,” Grandy said. He added that a five percent across-the-board pay cut would save over $100,000 a year. Grandy said he met Monday with the county auditor, treasurer and prosecutor about more aggressively collecting unpaid property tax. He said the county officials said their collection efforts are as aggressive as anyone in the state.

Board member Vince Popo added several cuts to consider – cut stipends for extracurricular activities, cut mileage reimbursement and cut reimbursement for teachers’ course work. “The sacrifice needs to be shared by all of us,” he emphasized. “I’ll vote for this to get the state off our back and then make changes. I don’t want any of the positions cut.”

“This is not a perfect plan,” Cumbow acknowledged. “This will be a working document,” Grandy said. “This list could grow or shrink.”

“I don’t like this list,” board member Karen Keller said. “I will vote for this, but I expect changes.”

“We have to keep looking,” board member Carol King added. “It is not my final answer.”

Monday night’s meeting lasted about three hours. Millersport High School English teacher Gretchen Schroeder read a statement to the board on behalf of the 45 members of the Walnut Township Education Association, who attended Monday’s meeting. She and other teachers believe the proposed cuts are unfair because nearly all the proposed cuts are teaching positions, minimizing the impact on administrators and other personnel.

Schroeder told board members, “While we all understand the dire circumstances of our current fiscal situation, we do not believe that the current plans being proposed are the best way to proceed in correcting it. It is not fair to our children; it is not fair to our community. We believe that you can do better-that you can consider other options so that teachers will not be the only ones shouldering the burdens of the district because, in the end, our children are the ones who stand to lose the most.

“We are on the front lines, with the students of the Walnut Township Local Schools every day. We don’t just show up, work, and go home. We don’t just deliver information and give tests. We are the ones who willingly pay for classroom supplies out of our own pockets; who show up with coats, hats, and gloves for the students who have none; who pitch in and help to cover the costs of an ACT registration, a class ring, or a graduation robe when a student can’t afford it.

“None of us entered this profession expecting it to be easy. We chose to do this to make a difference – and we DO make a difference. We call them “our” children because that is how we truly feel. And, it is our job to advocate for our children.

“And, this current proposal is not fair to our children. It isn’t fair to the second grader who looks forward each day to “specials” like physical education because there won’t be a PE teacher left to teach him. It isn’t fair to the high schooler who will have to sit in crowded study halls half the day since electives will be cut while teachers absorb the classes of their colleagues who will no longer be around. It isn’t fair to the Kindergartener, developing a love of reading, who will no longer have access to the books in the darkened library. It isn’t fair to the 6th grader who would love to pursue an instrument and have access to music lessons that her parents may not otherwise be able to afford because instrumental music has vanished. And, it isn’t fair to the high school senior who would love to receive an athletic scholarship to college because there will be no sports left to play.

“This proposal not only hurts our students, but our community as well, because the strength of our community is directly tied to the strength of our schools. Whether you live on the beach, in town, or out of town, this district is what brings us together; it’s the one thing we all share. Just imagine a Friday night in September with no football game-the shouts and cheers of fans and cheerleaders and the proud music of the band, replaced with silence-the lights of the stadium and concession stands, darkened and left in the shadows-the camaraderie, the school spirit, and the heart of our student athletes, reduced to a memory. Or think of all the hard work, monetary donations, and community volunteerism that has gone into district projects, such as getting our track back into shape and allowing us to host other schools for meets once again. Will all this go to waste?

“We believe there has to be a better way.

“To quote a recent article from the Buckeye Lake Beacon, the key to solving our district’s problems is a shared sacrifice, shared not only by teachers and students, but by all district employees and property owners, as well. Actions are being taken that help neither our students nor us. The state staffing analysis was based entirely on numbers, rather than what is actually best for our students and despite the fact that our board has never felt that we were overstaffed. In fact, new positions have been created in the past few years, positions that some have seen as unnecessary and that do not directly affect student learning. In the current proposal, these positions will remain, while all the personnel cuts are positions that will directly impact our students’ education.

“Our community is suffering and will continue to suffer from the district’s current financial difficulties. But, ultimately, it is our children who will pay the ultimate price for the actions that this board will take.

“We, as teachers, sacrifice for our children on a daily basis – we will continue to do so – but we are being asked to shoulder the overwhelming bulk of this burden,” Schroeder said.

Tom Gumpf, School Finance Area Coordinator for the Ohio Department of Education, was clear the district must avoid fiscal emergency. “It’s really hurtful,” he said. “I’ve never seen more harm to a school than fiscal emergency. Please avoid fiscal emergency with all your hearts.”

Gumpf said if the board does not approve a reduction plan by Feb. 10, the district would go into fiscal watch under the Auditor of State. Under fiscal emergency, Gumpf said the district must prove it can remain solvent for the next five years. The district must borrow whatever money is necessary to make that happen from itself, and only has two years to repay that amount. “You’re going to pay it back by making additional cuts,” he said. For example, Gumpf said if the district needs $1 million to ensure solvency over the next five years, it would only have two years to repay that $1 million. So, in addition to whatever cuts the district would be forced to make to remain solvent for five years, it would also have to cut however many more positions and programs it takes to generate $1 million in two years. The effect on the district, he said, is devastating. “Districts survive (fiscal emergency),” Gumpf said, “but they never look the same again.”

Adding to the devastation, Gumpf said, under open enrollment students will leave the district in droves for other districts that offer extra-curriculars and are fully staffed with teachers. This means Millersport would lose even more state funding.

With that in mind, board members voted unanimously to place a seven-mills emergency levy on the May ballot. However, Treasurer Kirk Grandy said levy revenue is always a year in arrears, so even if the levy is approved, the district will still have to impose personnel reductions until revenue is received in 2016.

Board members rejected Cotner’s recommendation to institute a $50 pay-to-participate fee for 2015 spring extra-curricular activities. The fee money would go mainly toward transportation costs. Popo, Cumbow, and King opposed the new fee. “Pay to participate has always rubbed me the wrong way,” Popo said.

• Board members approved updating facility usage fees to $20 per hour for up to four hours. Usage over four hours will be charged the daily rate. Cotner said it was unfair to charge people for an entire day’s rent if they only need the facility for a short time.

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