After years without seeking a new operating levy, the board placed a whopping 11 mills on Tuesday's special election ballot, then watched as voters rejected the property tax increase by a 2-to-1 margin. Two nights later, board members faced down angry parents and students and made $1.2 million in budget cuts, including the end of all football and other sports teams and all extracurricular activities, to avoid a general-fund deficit of more than $2 million by June, 2006.
Some in the crowd of more than 200 at Millbury Elementary School expressed shock and demanded to know why school officials didn't act sooner to put a levy on the ballot.
"I'm astounded that they made this sort of an across-the-board cut after the first time this levy failed," said Ruby White, whose daughter Danielle, will be a junior at Lake High School this fall. "We're just really upset."
Superintendent Paul Orshoski said school officials saw the red ink coming, but a host of obstacles left the district with few ways to react in time, he said. Those obstacles, he said, include other needs in the district, the state's school-funding system, a restrictive teachers' contract, and a local history of fierce opposition to taxes.
"It's not one or two things that created the negative balance," Mr. Orshoski said yesterday. "It's all of these things."
The superintendent said the district in northern Wood County hasn't passed a new operating levy since 1992, when voters narrowly approved a 6.5-mill measure. Voters renewed that tax twice, then approved a replacement levy in May, 2003, that increased annual revenue by $211,000.
Mr. Orshoski, who became superintendent four years ago, said the replacement levy was one of six money issues the district has placed before voters since he took office. The others include a 1.4-mill permanent improvement levy passed in November, 2001, and a 25-year, 4.95-mill bond issue approved in November, 2000, to fund construction of a new middle high school.
The permanent improvement levy, he said, was needed to allow the district to keep up with its other aging buildings.
The three levies passed from 2000 to 2003 helped the district meet pressing needs but taxed homeowners' budgets while providing little new money for operations, Mr. Orshoski said.
The school board knew it was facing a deficit for 2004-05 without steep cuts or more revenue but waited until this month's special election to seek new operating money to give voters a break between issues.
"We just didn't feel we could come back in March after just having been on in May," Mr. Orshoski said. "March would have been too early. It would have gotten beaten 3-to-1. It seems like we're always on the ballot. We've seen the deficits coming in five-year forecasts, but you've got so many levies on the ballot."
Lake has a history of opposition to taxes, highlighted by a bitterly contested vote in November, 1990, that rolled back 7 mills of an 11.5-mill operating levy passed in February of that year.
"It's taken years to come back from that," Mr. Orshoski said.
If the rollback hadn't occurred, the district wouldn't have needed the 6.5-mill replacement issue voters were asked to approve last year, Mr. Orshoski said. Instead, the district could have put an operating levy increase on the ballot then instead of waiting until this year.
In the meantime, the district's operating costs have continued to rise, including health coverage for employees and fleet insurance for school buses. A two-year contract with the Lake Education Association negotiated in September, 2002, included wage increases of 3.5 percent and 4 percent.
Mr. Orshoski noted that the teachers agreed this spring to extend the contract for a year and accept a wage freeze for 2004-05, a step also taken by the district's administrators.
But the superintendent said other, longstanding provisions in the contract have limited the district's options for reducing costs. The contract, for instance, mandates student-to-teacher ratios of 23-to-1 for kindergarten through third-grade classes and 25-to-1 for higher grades.
It also stipulates that the district can lay off teachers if enrollment declines but not for budgetary reasons.
"We're not declining in enrollment," the superintendent said. "We're going up."
The district has about 1,750 students and about 90 teachers.
Mr. Orshoski said the union has sought to protect teachers from layoffs and has resisted altering its contract.
"There was little cooperation on their part in allowing some cuts in other staff members to be made," he said. "The fact of the matter is, pay-to-participate has not been implemented in part because of our inability to reduce staff."
Cathey Vail, president of the Lake Education Association and a 34-year teacher with the district, declined to say whether the union would be willing to modify its contractual job-security provisions.
She said the district has been careful with its finances, allowing the schools to go 12 years between new operating levy requests.
"Really, we could have used an infusion of money earlier," she said. "I just think that, financially, people are having such a hard time."
Bill Phillis, executive director of the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding, said the state's continuing reliance on local property taxes means more school districts will be faced with cutting sports and other activities.
More and more districts are seeking tax hikes, and voter resistance is increasing. Mr. Phillis noted that just 25 percent of the 103 money issues on this week's ballot in Ohio were approved.
"But that's not the full picture," he added. "When you remove the renewal levies you find that only 15.5 percent of the other levies passed. So that's not a good omen."
Mr. Orshoski said residents upset with the district's budget cuts need to focus their frustration on state lawmakers who have failed to overhaul the funding system.
"That room was angry at us, because we're the people they see every day," he said, recalling Thursday night's board meeting. "It's the statewide decision-makers who need to feel this."
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