With the May 4 election drawing near, city schools Superintendent Michael Zalar hosted a virtual community town hall on March 31 that outlined the necessity of Issue 9, a proposed 8.5-mill tax levy.
If approved by voters, the levy would generate $7.2 million per year, costing property owners $24.79 more per month for every $100,000 of home valuation. The goal is to lower budget deficits that have already begun and stem a negative cash balance that will otherwise enter the picture in 2023.
During his 40-minute presentation, Zalar noted that the district is already deficit spending, a $4.3 million total for 2021. But the district’s cash reserves will disappear by 2023, leaving a $3.1 million hole that could balloon to $13.8 million by 2024 with no action.
“Clearly, the district needs to address our operating budget,” Zalar said during the presentation. “There are two ways to do that – either increase our revenue sources or decrease our expenditures.”
Zalar pointed out that as revenue has remained relatively flat over the years, costs of operating the school district, which serves 3,601 students and employs 576 people, have steadily risen. The operating levy is the first the district has placed on the ballot since 2010, when a 7.9-mill levy passed after three attempts. Since the turn of this century, operating levies have been passed after multiple attempts in 2002 and 2007.
Typically, levy cycles last three to five years.
“Ten years is a very long time (between levy requests),” Zalar said. “It’s certainly higher than the average school district in our area, and even in the state of Ohio. So I think our district has done a good job of being good fiscal stewards and stretching that operating levy out as long as we have. However, we can only stretch that out for so long without affecting our educational community.”
To make the 2010 tax increase last, the district has enacted numerous cost-saving measures. A soft hiring freeze was implemented over the past six years, resulting in the number of employees dropping from 626 in 2014 to the current total of 576 through retirements and attrition. Adjustments to the starting and ending times of preschool allowed for better streamlining of bus routes, which led to a savings. Textbook upgrades and curriculum resources have been delayed. Debt was reduced on the bonds used to build the new campus for grades 6-12 on Butternut Ridge Road, which saved millions of dollars.
The district is also in the process of closing schools. Butternut Primary, 26669 Butternut Ridge Road, was closed in 2018 and now serves as the administration and transportation building. Spruce Primary, 28590 Windsor Drive, is slated to close before the start of the 2022-23 school year.
But cost-cutting measures and even a levy can’t entirely stop budget deficits. State funding, which factors into just over 20% of the district’s budget each year, has decreased. Zalar said that the district is losing $800,000 per year to charter schools, community schools and open enrollment. Another $130,000 is lost each year to the College Credit Plus program. Since 2006, the district has lost over $22 million in operating revenue when the different factors combine.
The levy, if approved, will allow the district to continue to deliver on the same offerings it currently does, while avoiding more painful cuts down the road to a wide array of programs.
When asked via an email submission what could be cut in the event the tax increase doesn’t pass, Zalar didn’t provide specifics, but said the district would have to take a hard look.
“We’ll continue to work on those things, but we’re not going to be able to maintain the current level of support services for our students and quality education programs if we don’t have the additional revenue,” Zalar said. “If we’re forced to cut, students are going to lose opportunities, and they’re going to lose support services in all the various areas. We’ll be looking at transportation, we’ll be looking at field trips, we’ll be looking at other types of electives and experience that students have opportunities for in our district now.”
For questions about Issue 9, residents are encouraged to email email@example.com. The town hall presentation can be found in its entirety on the North Olmsted City Schools YouTube channel.
Contact this reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org or 440-871-5797.