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Published: Wednesday, 4/27/2005

Monroe County: 2 school districts seeking levies

BY GEORGE J. TANBER
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Two Monroe County school districts are seeking voter support for what they say are crucial fiscal issues in the May 3 election.

Airport Community Schools has a 1.75-mill, six-year sinking fund issue on the ballot which would raise $5.6 million for school renovations and construction.

Meanwhile, Jefferson Schools officials are seeking an 8.31-mill, five-year operating issue that will raise $2.2 million a year. While state law, under Proposal A, allows schools to seek bond issues for renovations and capital improvements, some districts - Jefferson among them - are exempt from the ruling.

Among the critical needs at Airport schools, according to Superintendent Tom Kowalski, are new roofs at Airport High School, Airport Middle School, and Ritter Elementary at an estimated cost of $1.35 million. The system also wants to build new classrooms at the high school and at Niedermeier Elementary, Sterling Elementary, and at Wager Middle School, Mr. Kowalski said.

Other proposed improvements include expanding and repaving a number of parking lots, sprucing up entrances at two of the schools, and adding a cafeteria, an activities gym, and an industrial technology classroom.

Using its own money, Airport schools have added four classrooms and two science labs in the last two years. But Mr. Kowalski said the system can no longer afford the renovations and improvements it needs.

"Due to a lack of support with operating revenues from the state, we no longer have the resources in our savings accounts or fund equity to continue with these projects," he said.

He said in two of the past three years, Airport schools have received less than the $6,700-per-student commitment promised by the state - already one of the lowest allowances in the state, he said.

Last year, a similar sinking fund measure lost by 130 votes. Previously, the district tried to pass bond issues on two occasions without success.

"They got hammered 2-1," Mr. Kowalski said.

"We feel that [this time] we have something voters will find more practical, realistic, and affordable," he said.

If it passes, the issue will cost residents between $75 and $200 a year, depending on their property values.

Robin Penn, who directs the Airport Believes in Children committee said she believes the issue has widespread support.

"The feedback from the community seems pretty positive. I hope we're not disappointed like before. I wish the people of this community understand that over time, just as they need to repair their homes, this is what we're facing right now with our school buildings."

At Jefferson schools, the district qualifies for the state exemption on operating levies because for years it operated under a formula that, through a local bond issue, provided the system with more than $3,000 a year more than the state subsidy for each of its students, said David Houle, director of business and finance.

However, in 2002 the district's 13-mill, five-year harmless operating levy was not renewed, costing the district $3.2 million a year in operating funds.

"We had to make substantial cuts," he said. "We balanced the budget with an eye on not effecting the students and the classroom experience. [But] we have no wiggle room whatsoever."

He said the 8.31 mills the district is asking for - which would costs owners of a $130,000 house $360 a year - would be enough for the district to continue at its present operating mode.

He said school employees, in the wake of the budget crisis, already have made substantial sacrifices in wage and benefits freezes and decreases.

He said schools officials are holding a series of meetings with district residents over the weekend to educate them on the importance of the issue.

Contact George Tanber at

gtanber@theblade.com

or 734-241-3610.



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