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Levy requests aren’t going away

MILLERSPORT – After thanking levy supporters Monday night, Walnut Township Local Schools Superintendent Randy Cotner said the district will keep asking voters for more money.

The same seven mill levy that voters rejected last week by a 586- 484 unofficial vote will be on the August 4 special election ballot. Due to filing deadlines, board members had to decide last month whether to try again in August if the levy wasn’t approved in May. They agreed unanimously to do so.

Cotner said there are still some misconceptions that the state will eventually force Walnut Township to consolidate with another district. There are no provisions in Ohio law to force a consolidation. Both districts have to approve a consolidation.

Walnut Township is not an attractive partner for consolidation. Neighboring districts receive at least twice as much state aid as a percent of their total budget as Walnut Township. A key factor in Ohio’s complex school funding formula is the district’s property valuation per student. The higher the valuation per pupil, the lower the amount of state funding.

Lakefront property valuations have pushed up the district’s overall valuation. The results, in terms of state aid, are disastrous when that valuation is combined with the district’s low and declining enrollment.

Walnut Township’s numbers would reduce the state’s contribution on a percentage basis of its budget for any potential consolidation partners.

Cotner also said the state does not force a district to close for financial reasons. If a district in fiscal watch, is unable to avoid a deficit at the end of the year, the state will place the district in fiscal emergency. Walnut Township avoided that fate this year (June 30, 2015) by cutting bussing for the second semester and making some one-time transfers to the general fund. The district now expects to carry over about $100,000 into the next fiscal year.

The cuts made earlier this year to avoid a deficit at the end of the next school year (June 30, 2016) were much more extensive, including the loss of six teaching positions, several non-teaching staff positions, salary reductions for administrators and a one-year wage freeze for everybody else. The district is projecting it will have just $81,000 to carryover into the next school year.

As expenses increase, more and more cuts are required to avoid slipping into a year-end deficit and consequently fiscal emergency. Though a five-member board basically takes over the district’s finances in a fiscal emergency, they can only cut expenses until they match income. “They (State of Ohio) will advance us our own money to keep our head above water, but we have to pay back with interest,” Cotner explained. “ The levies just keep getting bigger.”

The projected deficits by June 30, 2017 through 2019 are $183,632, 704,560 and 1,453,176.

In other business Monday night, Cotner proposed pay to participate fees for any activity with a supplemental contract. The district’s fiscal watch status entitles it to a performance audit conducted by the state auditor’s office that focuses on non-teaching personnel. Cotner said the audit shows that it costs the district $4.52 per mile to operate a school bus. Extracurricular activities required 11,641 bus miles last year.

The proposed fees are intended to offset some of the transportation costs. They will take effect August 1. High school sports including cheerleading will be $100 per sport with an individual cap of $200 and a $300 family cap. The marching bank fee is $100 with a $200 family cap. All caps are per year.

The fee for junior high sports, including cheerleading, is $75 with a $150 individual cap and $225 family cap. Board members approved Cotner’s proposal by 4-1 vote, with Vince Popo voting “no.”

Cotner also recommended changing a policy that would make school bus drivers working less than the four hour minimum ineligible for health insurance benefits. “Our bus drivers basically took a 50 percent pay cut,” he told board members. Cotner added that bus drivers are tough to recruit and retain. The policy change would allow those bus drivers who were participating in the district’s health plan when their hours were cut effective Jan. 5, 2015, to remain in the plan. Board members unanimously agreed.

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