ONTARIO -- Voters in the Ontario Local School District will decide whether or not to approve a 5-year, 6.9 mill operating levy that would generate $1,935,000 per year for the district.
The school said it's trying to fill a gaping void left by a lack of state funding, which Superintendent Lisa Carmichael noted the district was only alerted to in July.
The proposed levy would generate funds for the day-to-day operations, allowing the Ontario Schools -- the 12th lowest spending district in Ohio -- to maintain its current budget of $18 million.
It would cost residents $20 per month per $100,000 of home market value for the first two years, and $7 per month for the same value during the remaining three years as the district intends to no longer collect taxes from a bond issue (originating in 1998) beginning in 2022.
"I've been with Ontario Schools for 31 years, and this is the most concerned I've ever been about the future of Ontario School's finances," Treasurer Randy Harvey said.
A FUNDING ISSUE
Harvey cites a decrease in revenue that began in the early 2000's when Ohio eliminated tangible personal property tax -- or tax on items that can be moved or touched, such as business equipment, machinery and furniture.
The district's income dipped again in the late 2000's with the closure of General Motors, and yet again more recently when the Richland Mall was purchased. The mall was appraised at a lesser value, which results in less tax dollars for the schools.
"As our tax base lowered what should have happened for the state formula, automatically the state would supplant those funds or replace those funds back to us or at least the majority of them," Harvey said. "Right in the middle of all those reductions, the state ran out of money and turned off the formula and that money never flowed back to us.
"They put what's called a cap on that and gave us only a small percentage of that increase. And they've done that now almost seven years."
The only way he sees to solve the problem "right now" is to pass a levy -- an attempt that was previously tried and failed.
In 2011, the Ontario City School District asked voters to pass a levy, but it was rejected.
"We explained the only way we'd be able to survive was open enrollment ... And that has paid our bills for the past eight years and has kept us off the ballot," Harvey said.
But at this point, most classes are at capacity. He estimates the district now includes about 400 open enrollment students.
"(It) now has leveled off. We can't add anymore students than we have right now," he said.
Carmichael says without any funding coming from the state until maybe 2021 -- if it ends up “earmarked for schools" -- the only solution she sees is a levy.
"This is really about taking charge of our school, and taking care of our own and doing what's best for our students," she said.
Ontario Schools has not passed a new money levy since 2006.
BREAKING DOWN THE PROPOSED REDUCTION PLAN
If the levy fails in November, Carmichael said, it will be brought back to voters in March 2020. If it fails again, the district would be forced to implement some "alarming cuts."
A proposed reduction plan includes the elimination of all high school transportation; elimination of art, music, physical education and technology at Stingel Elementary School and the implementation of a shortened school day -- reducing the school day to include seven instead of eight periods at Stingel, Ontario Middle and High Schools.
“This plan would not only devastate the district, it would hurt our kids,” Carmichael said.
The plan suggests 26 changes that would total an approximate $1.7 million worth of cuts. If the levy fails in November, the superintendent says she'll have to come up with another $235,000 in budget reductions and recommend a formal budget recovery plan to the board of education.
"If it becomes necessary to implement these cuts and reductions, we potentially will become the lowest spending school district in the entire State of Ohio. This is not a goal we want to acquire," Carmichael said.
The reductions would be implemented beginning with the 2020-2021 school year.
"All of these proposed cuts were difficult to determine. Every single member on our Board of Education has or had children attending our schools. Every BOE member lives in Ontario. Our treasurer and I live here, too," Carmichael said. "None of us want to implement any of the proposed cuts and reductions.
"We want to maintain everything that we currently have. None of us want to pay higher taxes either."
The proposed reduction plan’s 26 items are listed below with short descriptions, which were provided by Superintendent Carmichael.
1. Elimination of one high school guidance counselor through attrition
This would leave one guidance counselor at Ontario High School, one at Ontario Middle School and one at Stingel Elementary. This leaves three guidance counselors for 2,050 students.
This makes the ratio of counselors to students 1-to-683 instead of a 1-to-512.
2. Elimination of art, music, physical education and technology at Stingel Elementary School
Four certified staff members would be laid off.
Elementary teachers would then be required to incorporate art, music, physical education and technology into their daily curriculum.
3. An increase in the pay-to-participate student activities
For high school students, the cost to participate in one sport would increase from $100 to $200. It would cost $100 more instead of $50 for a second sport, and a third sport would cost $50 instead of being free.
For middle school students, the cost for their first sport would be $100 instead of $50. The second sport would cost $50 instead of $25, and the third sport would cost $25 instead of being free.
This is in addition to the cost of athletic drug tests and a $25 fee for select sports or activities like cheerleading or marching band.
4. Elimination of one library media specialist
This position would be eliminated from Ontario Middle School, leaving no library media specialists at this location.
5. Reduced time for one educational service employee
The services of the gifted coordinator would be reduced by one day. The coordinator would provide services for two instead of three days.
6. A reduction of supplemental contracts
The following extracurricular supplemental positions would be eliminated: OHS and OMS student council advisors, freshman and sophomore class advisors, OMS yearbook, OHS and OMS academic challenge advisor, OHS science club, OMS Power of the Pen, Stingel Elementary School’s Lego club, OMS and Stingel Elementary School’s spelling bees.
7. Elimination of all extended time contractors and eight period-a-day teachers
8. Elimination of the school resource officer
The district currently pays $65,000 annually for its SRO. If the levy fails, this position is a proposed cut.
“Due to the fact that we are at a state minimum number of teachers, and our class sizes are the highest in Richland County, we had to propose cutting non-teaching positions because we simply do not have an excess of teachers to cut,” Carmichael said.
At an Ontario City Council meeting in September, Fourth Ward representative Dan Zeiter promised the city would step up to keep the resource officer position if need be. This was before he criticized the superintendent, saying she should turn in her letter of resignation.
“If our levy should fail, I hope that City Council will keep their word and place an SRO here at our schools on a full-time basis,” Carmichael said.
Currently, the city of Ontario splits the cost with the district. The city covers approximately $32,000 every year -- or about one third of the expense -- and the district pays between $64,000 and $65,000 annually. This total of about $96,000 covers a salary of $56,160 and benefits package, the city’s auditor Mary Ann Hellinger said.
“With everything else that’s happened throughout this country, I can assure you this body and this administration and this police department will not allow our school district to go one day without a resource officer, regardless if this levy passes or not. I can promise you this body will not allow that to happen,” Zeiter said at a September meeting .
The city, Hellinger said, covers the cost up front, and invoices Ontario Local Schools for two-thirds of the cost.
For nine months, the SRO works for the district and for the remaining months, he works at the Ontario Police Department.
9. Elimination of one certified teacher in the OHS career-based intervention program.
This would result in the lay-off of one person. It would leave no one in this role.
10. Elimination of all field trips
This would also include bus and van transportation savings. When asked how many field trips are taken annually, Carmichael said, she did not have a number.
11. Elimination of seven classified OAPSE positions
Seven would be eliminated, leaving 52 remaining.
12. Elimination of all high school transportation
Transportation would be eliminated for all high school students, all students residing within a 2-mile radius of their school building and all open enrolled students. Open enrolled students currently have the option to get picked up or dropped off at designated locations within the district.
Further, transportation would only be provided to and from a student’s “actual residence.” This means no transportation to daycare or a relative’s house.
13. Implementation of a shortened school day
A “minimum school day” would be implemented, including only seven instead of eight periods at OHS and OMS. About 40 to 43 minutes would be cut from the daily schedule at Stingel, OMS and OHS.
“We are currently in excess of the required number of hours that our students attend daily, therefore, we can shorten the school day by 40 minutes each day,” Carmichael said. “Again, this will result in a loss of program opportunities and services to our students.”
This shortened day would allow the elimination of art, music, PE and technology and reduce costs in transportation. Stingel and OMS students would be transported to and from school at the same time.
All the teachers will have a common prep period at the end of the day.
Carmicheal says the district has operated on an 8-period work day longer than her time at the district.
“I've been with our district nine years. We have offered eight-period days at OMS & OHS since I arrived in 2011,” she said. “Not sure exactly how long this has been in effect.”
14. Elimination of latchkey
The district would eliminate all before- and after-school programs, which allow parents to drop their children off early or pick them up late.
15. Elimination of specific grade level teachers
This would be determined based on student enrollment at each grade level.
For example, the plan notes that this year’s Kindergarten and second grade classes are “very small.” Perhaps one of the teachers in each class would be eliminated in this scenario.
16. Elimination of weekend facility usage requests
17. Elimination of the Points of Pride district newsletter
The supplemental contract associated with this would be eliminated. Typically, this newsletter was published four times per year.
18. Elimination of the district courier position
This would eliminate the roles of secretaries or secretary aides who’d make runs daily to the board office, post office and bank.
19. Elimination of 2 home economics teachers
None would remain. This would result in a loss of elective course offerings at OMS and OHS.
20. Closing the natatorium
The swimming pool would be closed.
“We would still have a swim team, however, our swim team would have to secure another location for practices and meets,” Carmichael said.
21. Postpone all curriculum and Chromebook purchases for one year
22. Elimination of summer/student workers
23. Elimination of all administrator and staff food items, refreshments and gift items
This includes the elimination of all staff meals, snacks at administrative and staff meetings, staff appreciation gifts and designated appreciation days.
24. Elimination of all administrative, OFT and OAPSE professional leave
This would mean no professional development training for staff, Carmichael said.
25. A proposed implementation of a uniform percentage salary reduction and a step freeze in 2020 - 2021 for all administrators, OFT and OAPSE personnel.
This would need to be negotiated with the unions.
26. Elimination of all external field maintenance and landscaping of school grounds
These would instead be maintained by the district’s own maintenance department.
When the proposed levy was presented to Ontario City Council at a September meeting, council did not pass a resolution in support of the levy like Carmichael requested.
Instead, they stayed true to a long-held tradition: to not pass resolutions of support. In the past, council has not passed resolutions in support of other levies, including those from Richland County Children’s Services and the library, in the past. Ontario City Council only allows them the platform to present their information.
A handful of council members, including Nathan Sunderland, spoke in support of the levy, while others like Dan Zeiter criticized the superintendent and her proposal.
Carmichael said she couldn't provide any dollar amounts associated with the 26 items on the reduction plan at this time. They are still subject to change.
"Many of the items are estimates at this time. We remain extremely hopeful that our resident voters will do the right thing and support us on Nov. 5," Carmichael said.
"For example, the transportation reductions will be a monumental task. It will require my Director of Transportation to re-route every bus route in our entire school district. This task will take hundreds of hours. I am not directing my transportation director to complete this task until it becomes necessary, should our levy fail.
If the transportation cost savings is less than she predicts, she explained, she'd need to find other cuts to "make up for that shortfall," such as additional salary cuts.
"This is why I am only sharing the proposed cost savings on an aggregate basis," Carmichael said.
"There is a wow factor when you're faced with the challenge of cutting $1,935,000 annually from an $18 million dollar budget. This would be extremely devastating to our staff, our parents, our students, and our community. We have an extraordinary school district. We want to maintain everything that we currently have," Carmichael said.
For more information about the proposed levy, visit ontarioschools.org.