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Published: Wednesday, 10/6/2004

Swanton busy over levy request

BY JANET ROMAKER
BLADE STAFF WERITER

SWANTON - As Nov. 2 approaches, Swanton area residents are gearing up campaigns for and against the Swanton Local School District's 4.34-mill, 3-year emergency operating levy request.

Yard signs, telephone calls, fliers, and other means are being used to reach out to voters.

"We will try to put forward the information people need to make a choice," said Superintendent Robin Rayfield.

On the other side, Jeff Michael with the No Swanton Tax Committee said that the group will be actively involved in campaigning against the levy.

The group's intent is "to provide factual information that encourages the residents to educate themselves in the facts of the issues and decide for themselves rather than simplybelieving what the schools and board are telling them," according to Mr. Michael. The group has opposed other levy requests, including when the levy was on the August ballot. The issue was narrowly defeated. After the election, Mr. Michael said that the No Swanton Tax Committee "consists of 20 people. However, we consider all of our supporters as part of our group, including all of the anonymous."

The district's financial situation has been a subject of discussion in recent weeks as the school board and the Swanton Education Association were involved in negotiations for a new contract. Because of the tight financial conditions, the contract contained a base wage freeze and provisions for teachers to pay premium contributions toward health-care benefits, school officials said.

Mr. Rayfield said that he has a "really good feeling" about the way Swanton views schools. "I think people in Swanton do value their schools. I think they have looked at the recent hardships with the recent negotiations" and have concluded that, "Hey, it would be easier to give money away. The school really doesn't have the money."

Generally, he said, the community believes that school officials are not wasting or squandering money. The Swanton district "is in fiscal caution not as a result of poor spending habits as much as a factor of astronomical increases in insurance and health care that we have attempted to rectify," he said.

The levy would generate $825,820 per year. A homeowner with a $100,000 home would pay $132 per year if the levy is approved.

Cheryl Swisher, treasurer for the school district, said that passage of the levy is critical to the financial stability of Swanton schools. "We will be taking a step backward if this levy fails," she said.

Estimates show that the district would face a $288,000 deficit this school year if the levy doesn't pass in November.

Many steps have been taken, she said, to cut spending, such as staff reductions, and to address expenditures. Recommendations by the state are being reviewed and steps will be taken to implement those that are feasible to the district.

Mr. Michael has an idea to raise revenue. According to him, the No Tax group believes that "it's time for the teachers that live outside the district to stand behind their actions as many campaigned for the 1 1/4 percent income tax. Being that they thought they could campaign for the levy, we believe that they should deposit 1 1/4 percent of their salary in an account for the school."

Mr. Rayfield said that teachers who live in other districts are paying for someone's education and probably are doing so gladly.

The No Swanton Tax group contends that there has been "fiscal irresponsibility" that caused the financial issues, and argues that Swanton's five-year forecast shows that the district's expenditures are higher than some other schools.

Mr. Rayfield said that Swanton's five-year forecast is being refigured, and that the treasurer will meet with the community financial oversight group to discuss the forecast. Based on estimates, "we're optimistic we can move out of fiscal caution over the next 18 months to two years," Mr. Rayfield said. He emphasized that the operating levy is a renewal, and is not a tax increase.

Mr. Michael contends that the school board and administration aren't interested in listening to the residents. During board meetings, school officials encourage residents to get involved with the schools and to regularly attend meetings. School officials have told residents that they have an open-door policy and that residents are welcome to come in to discuss any issues or concerns.

"In speaking to many of the residents since the March approval of the income tax levy, common issues have appeared. One of those issues was the lack of trust in the school board, administration, and representatives of the school and many feel that the school board and administration are out of touch with the majority of the residents of the district," according to Mr. Michael.

Mrs. Swisher said that she has an open-door policy and is willing to take time to talk with taxpayers who have questions or concerns so that everyone is on the same page. "We all want to accomplish the same goals and the only way to do that is to work together," she said.

It costs money to operate schools, Mr. Rayfield said. "Anyone who thinks schools run for free are not thinking logically," he said. "I challenge anyone to come in and look at the books."



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