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Published: Monday, 1/17/2011

Sharing the pain

Budget miseries are not confined to Ohio's urban school districts. Like its Toledo counterpart, the relatively affluent Sylvania Schools faces both a huge budget gap and disgruntled voters who made clear last November they are in no mood for higher taxes.

The local economy remains sluggish, and the new administration in Columbus likely will reduce state aid to public schools. So it's hard to see how Sylvania can close a projected deficit of more than $6 million in next school year's budget — without gutting vital programs and resorting to mass layoffs — in the absence of meaningful economic concessions by its employees, both union-represented and nonunion.

The budget-balancing plan offered by district executives would eliminate 82 teaching jobs and nearly 30 support positions — almost one-sixth of the district's staff. Teacher layoffs should be the last resort rather than the first option, not only because of their inevitable impact on class size and the quality of classroom instruction, but also because the cost of unemployment benefits would consume much of the projected savings.

Under the district's austerity plan, students also would have to pay more to buy school lunches and play sports. If such measures are needed, the increases should take into account a family's ability to pay.

Proposed cuts would come in student transportation, arts and teacher-preparation programs, elective courses, elementary-school guidance counseling, and a broad range of other enrichment efforts. A narrow interpretation would call such items nonessential, but their loss or major reduction surely would impair the district's quality of education.

In Sylvania, as in nearly all other school districts, employee pay and benefits are by far the largest single budget item. The district simply cannot declare compensation off limits for potentially painful reductions, although fairness and equality of sacrifice must guide that process.

School officials are working to place a tax question on the May 3 ballot. But given Sylvania voters' rejection of a levy last November, adoption of the new issue is hardly a sure thing. And even if it were to pass, the new revenue would not start to flow quickly enough to avert some spending cuts.

During several public meetings last week, teachers, parents, and students all demanded that Sylvania school leaders find a way to balance the budget that maintains the district's reputation for excellence as much as possible. There are no easy or painless answers left. But any sacrifices expected of students and taxpayers need to cover district employees as well.

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