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Walnut Township School cuts get personal

MILLERSPORT – Walnut Township Local Schools’ financial crisis got personal at Monday night’s school board meeting.

Superintendent Randy Cotner and Treasurer Kirk Grandy developed a “reduction list” that appeared as part of the superintendent’s personnel recommendations on the meeting agenda.

The reduction list totals $951,957 for next school year. The district needs to reduce expenses by about $1 million next year to avoid a general fund deficit when the fiscal year ends June 30, 2016.

A December 10, 2014, letter from the Ohio Department of Education officially placed the district in “fiscal caution” as of Dec. 28 and set a Feb. 10, 2015, deadline for a plan from the district on how it will eliminate general fund deficits projected for June 30, 2015, and June 30, 2016. State law prohibits school districts from running a deficit.

Last month, board members addressed the projected $100,000 deficit for June 30, 2015. Cutting bussing to one route limited to K-8 students will save about $40,000 and not filling a vacant central office secretarial position will save about $37,000. A onetime transfer from the food service fund to the general revenue fund to pay for its maintenance and custodial expenses provided an additional savings of $27,968. The general fund reductions slightly exceed the $100,000 projected deficit.

Cotner prefaced his comments on the “reduction list” by emphasizing how difficult and unpleasant the task is. “We tried to keep it positive,” he said. “Twice this community voted ‘no.’ We are in fiscal caution and we’ll probably be bounced over (fiscal watch) to fiscal emergency.”

“The only choice we have is to cut back expenses,” Cotner said. “The State can not shut you down for financial reasons. The State can not force you to consolidate…We don’t want to go to fiscal emergency. It’s not a pleasant place to be.”

The Ohio Department of Education recently completed a staffing analysis, Cotner added. According to that analysis, the district is 11.8 teachers over minimum standards. Cotner said representatives from the State Auditor’s Office scheduled a meeting for Jan. 13, to begin a performance audit that will focus on non-teaching personnel.

“This is not easy,” Cotner repeated. “I can justify every position on this list.” The reduction list included eight teaching positions and a total cost for each position next school year. The cost includes the salary to be paid to the teacher next year, supplemental contracts for extracurricular activities, extended day contracts for working beyond the normal school year, the district’s contribution for health insurance and retirement, and taxes/assessments levied on salaries like state and federal unemployment, and workers compensation.

The reduction list for teaching positions:

• Family & Consumer Science*;

• Junior High/High School Language Arts;

• Junior High/High School Social Studies:

• Elementary Physical Education*;

• Instrumental Music*;

• Elementary Technology*;

• Foreign Language; and

• Elementary Librarian*.

* Only position in the district. For example, eliminating the instrumental music position would eliminate the band as well.

Reductions from eliminating these eight teaching position total $604,174. Cotner later agreed with board member Carol King that the net reductions would be less because the district would have to pay for unemployment benefits for teachers that don’t find new jobs for next school year.

The list also included two 187-day custodian positions for a total reduction of $76,860. Eliminating high school bussing would cut expenses by $86,172 for the full school year. Eliminating all extra-curricular activities including sports, clubs and organizations would cut personnel costs (supplemental contracts) a total of $167,403. Eliminating all extra-curricular trips would cut expenses by $17,318.

The reduction list totals $951,957, which is short of the $1 million reduction needed by June 30, 2016. Grandy cautioned later in the meeting, “The list could grow.”

Some of the reductions would not come back even if voters approve a levy in May. Cotner would only commit to restoring high school bussing and extra curricular activities with a fee to participate. He said the district is one of just two districts in the 28-district Mid State League that doesn’t charge a participation fee.

“I think we need to stand united as a board and approve your cuts,” former board president and current vice president Faye Whitaker said. “I think the board needed more time to discuss these things,” board member Carol King said. Board member Karen Keller asked if administrators had discussed across the board cuts with the teachers union. Several teachers in attendance had earlier volunteered to give up payment for their supplemental contracts. Cotner said the teachers’ contract would have to be amended to drop supplemental payments and said some additional cuts will have to be negotiated with the union. He told King, “I’m not going to change the recommendation.”

New board president Tom Cumbow and Whitaker voted to approve the reduction list. Board member Vince Popo voted “no,” after noting that he asked for a reduction plan a year ago and never saw one. Keller and King sided with Popo, rejecting the reduction list by a 3-2 vote. Cotner emphasized that board members would see the same reduction list at their February 2 meeting.

Grandy emphasized the importance of staying out of fiscal emergency. He said the district could get out of fiscal caution by approving a plan to eliminate the projected deficits for June 30, 2015 and 2016. He said five year forecasts often project deficits in the out years. If the district ends up in fiscal emergency, Grandy said the district will have to eliminate deficits for the entire five year planning period which is much more difficult.

The 3-2 rejection of Cotner’s reduction list sets up a potentially contentious meeting at 7 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 2, in the elementary school library. “It is going to get a whole lot worse if we don’t make the deadline,” Cotner warned. “We have a problem we’ve got to solve.”

In other business Monday night, Grandy told board members, “ I hope I can get through January.” He said the general revenue fund balance was just $252,832 on December 31. Expenses were $430,921 in December. He said some bills have been held and he’s received some grace periods on others. He expects less than $100,000 of state foundation funds (basic state aid) in January and anticipates about $230,000 on January 31 from the January income tax settlement. Real estate tax revenues start coming in during February.

Board members unanimously took the first step toward putting a levy on the May ballot. Last November, the district was seeking a total of $1,258,000 a year – $1 million in new property taxes and to renew one of the district’s two emergency levies. Millage or the tax rate was set at 8.8 mills. The district is now seeking a total of $1 million a year, representing $742,000 in new property taxes. That’s nearly a 21 percent reduction. Grandy expects the millage will drop from 8.8 to about 7.

A proposal to not transport athletes to spring sports this year and to stop transportation for all other extra curricular activities effective March 1 was tabled by a 4-1 vote, with Popo voting “no.” The transportation reduction was tabled after board members discovered that a board policy requiring students to be transported in school buses using certified drivers must first be amended before school bus transportation is eliminated.

High school principal Jeff Stought said, “White Christmas went very well.” A total of 160 fruit baskets were delivered to seniors and 32 families received food and toys for Christmas. He thanked students, staff members and Lions Club members for their support.

Elementary school principal Angie Harrison thanked bus drivers for a smooth transition to the new bus schedule. Transportation and maintenance supervisor Bill Yates also thanked bus drivers for their help and cooperation. He acknowledged that heat has been cut back a little to save money.

During the annual re-organzational meeting, Whitaker stepped down as board president, nominating Cumbow to replace her. Whitaker is the new vice president, replacing Popo. The board will continue to hold its regular meeting at 7 p.m. on the second Monday of every month. All meetings except the September regular meeting will be held in the elementary school library. The September meeting will be held in Fairfield Beach. The February meeting will be moved up one week to 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 2, as will the November meeting to Nov. 2.

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