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Published: Wednesday, 9/27/2006

School may be closed regardless of tax vote

BY JIM SIELICKI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Residents in the Eastwood Local School District could lose an elementary building at the end of the school year, a victim of declining enrollment and increased financial strain.

The closing would be made regardless of what voters decide with a 1 percent, five-year income tax issue on the November ballot.

But defeat of the tax issue would add urgency to the drive to contain costs.

Superintendent Brent Welker said 80-year-old Lemoyne Elementary is the likely target of closing, based on its age and its shrinking student body.

A conservative estimate shows the closing would save $100,000, he said.

The possibility has been in the background for while.

"We've had public meetings in Lemoyne and explained the situation," Mr. Welker said. "This is not a new idea."

The district's financial condition has become dire with failed attempts to pass tax issues in May and August, forcing the board to re-examine its spending.

"We understand that regardless of whether the levy passes, we would continue to have to find ways to reduce expenditures and costs," he said.

Mr. Welker told the school board and the community in a recent e-mail that the key number the district must keep in mind is $1.3 million.

If the levy fails, that would be the amount of money the district would have to cut for the 2007-08 school year.

Mr. Welker said the school board was sympathetic to concerns about higher taxes.

"We are asking our residents to make a significant investment in the district," he said.

Mr. Welker said concerns from residents were taken into account for the levy, including a plan to form an advisory council to examine the books and finances on a quarterly basis.

"We heard concerns about financial accountability," he said.

Financial stewardship includes taking a hard look at closing an elementary building.

In the year 2000, Eastwood educated 841 students in grades kindergarten through fifth grade. This year's K-5 enrollment is 704 students.

Declining enrollment leaves the district with a difficult decision, he said, including staff and the condition of the buildings.

With 80 percent of the district's costs in personnel, the only practical way to balance the budget will come through staff reductions, he said. Eastwood has a staff of 211 and 1,849 students.

But the superintendent said the smaller staff size has its own ramifications for students, particularly among those who need help the most.

Mr. Welker, who is in his first year as superintendent, has identified several areas for possible cuts should the levy fail.

He advised the school board that cuts should only be made "if they truly save the district money" and should not be made to anger the community as a way to get voters to approve the tax.

He cautioned against eliminating athletics because the move would drive students to other districts, where they would be immediately eligible to participate in sports.

While eliminating extracurricular activities would save a half million dollars, every student that transfers to another school would cost the district $5,400 from the state.

A loss of 100 students would cost Eastwood $540,000.

If the levy were to fail, the district would begin immediate cost-containment moves this year that would include:

•Freezing discretionary spending.

•Making only essential repairs and emergency purchases.

•Setting new participation fees for athletics.

•No field trips or professional development.

Budget reductions for the following year would entail:

•Cutting teaching positions, administrative staff, and nonteaching staff members.

•Raising participation fees for activities and athletics.

•Eliminating transportation for field trips.

•Eliminating overtime.

The savings, most of which would result from staff cuts, would total $1.7 million for the 2007-08 school year.

Mr. Welker warned that the cuts come with their own costs.

The spending freezes would mean the district will fall behind in technology, making Eastwood graduates less competitive in the job market.

The loss of teachers would mean larger classes for elementary students and fewer class options for high school students, including elective courses, he said.

The proposed cutbacks, while necessary for the district's survival, run counter to Eastwood's mission, Mr. Welker said.

"We want to become an excellent school district," he said. "Our community wants us to do that."

Contact: Jim Sielicki at:

jsielicki@theblade.com

or 419-724-6078.



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