ONTARIO -- More than two dozen people piled into Ontario City Council chambers Wednesday evening to show their support for Ontario Local School District Superintendent Lisa Carmichael.
The school leader asked council to formally support its proposed 5-year, 6.9 mil operating levy on the November ballot.
Council did not oblige, though. Most of the members spoke their mind -- some in support of and at least one seemingly against the levy --- but in staying true to a long-held tradition, none requested a resolution be passed one way or another.
“We agreed years ago we would not do resolutions of this kind. And it has nothing to do with that we don’t support the schools personally … We all support the school, and in no way shape or form by not doing a resolution are we saying we don’t support the school,” second ward councilwoman Michelle Webb said. “It’s just something we don’t do.”
Webb, who was quiet compared to some of her fellow council members, explained that council has not passed resolutions in support of other levies, including those from Richland County Children’s Services and the library, in the past. Instead, Ontario City Council only allows them the platform to present their information.
The reasoning, several council members explained, was that council represents the entire city. Some residents will undoubtedly support the levy, while others may not. Since it’s on the ballot, they say their intention is to allow voters to make their own decision.
“Personally, we can all support the levy. I support the schools. I think we have some of the greatest schools around, but we stopped doing resolutions because if we did it for one, we felt we’d have to do it for all of them, and we’re trying to be consistent,” said third ward councilman Mark Weidemyre. “It’s not that we’re not in support. I think most of us up here are -- I don’t want to speak for everyone -- but we made a decision to be fair to everyone across the board that we don’t formally support anything.”
The proposed levy
The proposed 5-year, 6.9 mil operating levy would generate $1,935,000 per year for the Ontario Local School District, filling a gaping void left by a lack of state funding, which Carmichael said the district was only alerted to in July.
“They said, ‘We’re not helping you. You need to go pass a levy,’” she said. “(So) this is not a spending issue. This is a revenue issue.”
She anticipates no additional funding to come from the state until 2021, and even then it may not be “earmarked for schools.”
Without this funding, she said the district could be forced to make some “alarming” cuts. These include the elimination of all high school transportation and transportation of all students within a 2-mile radius of the school; 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.
“I’m going to be faced with a horrific task,” Carmichael said.
Further, the proposed cuts would eliminate the following positions: the school resource officer; a high school guidance counselor through attrition; library media specialists; a district courier position; all summer/student workers; two home economic teachers; four playground aides and three custodians.
The loss of the school resource officer, Carmichael noted, would be especially devastating. The role was added after a student was held hostage in 2007. The former student was at Wednesday’s meeting.
Later, Ontario City Council’s fourth ward representative Dan Zeiter promised the city would step up to keep the resource officer position if need be.
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.
The city's auditor, Mary Ann Hellinger explained that the SRO is paid through the city. According to a December 2018 invoice, the SRO received a salary of $56,160 and benefits package, totaling about $96,000.
The city, Hellinger said, covers the cost up front, and invoices Ontario Local Schools for two-thirds of the cost.
For nine months of the year, the SRO works for the district and for the remaining months, he works at the Ontario Police Department.
“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,” he said.
A few council members and Mayor Randy Hutchinson nodded, signaling their agreement.
Other proposed changes include: an increase in the pay-to-participate athletic programs; reduced time for one gifted coordinator; reduction of supplemental contracts for some extracurricular activities; elimination of all extended time contracts and eight period a day teachers; elimination of the OHS career-based intervention program; elimination of all field trips; elimination of transportation to locations outside of one residence; elimination of transportation for open-enrolled students; elimination of before and after school programs; elimination of specific grade level teachers; elimination of weekend facility usage rights; elimination of the “Points of Pride” district newsletter; closing the pool; postponing all curriculum and chromebook purchases for one year; elimination of all administrative, OFT and OAPSE personnel’s professional leave and food or gift items given on designated appreciation days; the implementation of a uniform percentage salary reduction and step freeze in 2020 to 2021 for all administrators, OFT and OAPSE personnel; and the elimination of all external athletic field maintenance and landscaping of the school grounds.
If not passed in November, Carmichael said, the levy will be brought back to voters in March 2020. If it fails again, she said the district would be forced to implement the proposed reduction plan.
“This plan would not only devastate the district, it would hurt our kids,” she said.
Something this significant, Carmichael argued, “is a community issue” and as a result warrants council’s support.
“This levy is about maintaining every single thing we currently have right now,” she said.
For someone with a 100,000 home, the cost rates at $20 a month for two years, then $7 a month for years three, four and five. This is because a bond issue for new school buildings, originating in 1998, will be paid off.
No resolution, but council members speak up
Carmichael said the “best news” of the night was the assurance that the school resource officer position would get city support.
It was quite possibly followed by her worst news of the night, as Zeiter pointed to past report cards issued by the Ohio Department of Education. He said, though the district received a “B” on its recent report, the scores aren’t as impressive as 10 years ago.
“It’s hardly a badge of glory … Instead of you standing here asking us for money to continue this … performance, the community and the school board in my opinion -- and only my opinion -- should be asking you for a letter of resignation,” Zeiter said.
In response, Carmicheal pointed to changes in student population. She noted students living with grandparents and an increase in the number of free and reduced lunches offered by the district.
“Maybe you should be the superintendent. You know it all,” she said.
Later when Zeiter asked about costs per student, Carmichael responded similarly.
“Again Mr. Zeiter, if you want to be superintendent figure it out. But you’re not qualified. Darn it,” she said.
At-large councilman Larry Arnold wanted to know: Couldn’t things have been done differently to save money “here and there.”
Arnold said a bus stops twice in his neighborhood’s cul-de-sac to pick up high school students, who live only a few houses apart. Why don’t they walk up to the end of the road, he wondered?
“I’m sitting here thinking you could have saved money on that,” Arnold said, offering what he implied could have been an alternative to the proposed cutting of all high school transportation if the levy fails.
“There’s a wow factor to some of … the 26 items (in the proposed reduction plan) … Really? What’s the dollar figures? You’re not going to cut all of that?” Arnold said.
He wanted to see more details or dollar figures associated with each of the proposed eliminations and other changes.
Second ward councilman Nathan Sunderland was one of the last to chime in before Carmichael left council chambers. His simple comment had the crowded chamber clapping and cheering.
“One thing the citizens of Ontario need to remember, we’re not voting on a levy because of Mrs. Carmichael ... We’re voting on a levy for the students,” he said.
He advised people to drive by his house and see the sign out front, showing that he supports the levy.
This story was updated on Sept. 23 to reflect a conversation with Ontario's auditor, Mary Ann Hellinger. She provided further details about the SRO's salary and benefits package. Initially, this report stated that the city contributed "56,000" towards the SRO's salary.