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Published: Wednesday, 4/14/2010

Toledo schools' levy effort low-key

BY CHRISTOPHER D. KIRKPATRICK
BLADE STAFF WRITER

With a May 4 levy vote approaching, Toledo Public Schools doesn't plan to send letters home with students or form an official levy campaign committee of its own, said school board President Bob Vasquez.

But Jim Gault, an assistant superintendent, is handling an "internal" coordination with community groups pushing for passage and trying to win endorsements, Mr. Vasquez said.

He said that school employee activities related to the levy would happen before or after work. He also said that, as in the past, the school board would try to get parents involved through its Parent Congress.

That group's president, Chris Varwig, who was chairman of the 2008 levy renewal campaign, said several parents will lead the levy campaign this year.

It will include literature drops and a tailgate during which signs will be painted.

She said the levy campaigns are always conducted off school grounds and employees who want to participate do so while they're not working.

The school district sponsored an annual luncheon yesterday that focused on preparing students for end-of-grade exams, the results of which form the rankings of schools and school districts across the state.

It also featured speakers in support of the levy.

A representative with the Ohio Secretary of State - the keeper of state election rules - said school levy campaigns need to be community-based. But he said there are multiple gray areas.

"There really needs to be a separation," said Jeff Ortega, a spokesman for the state agency. "That's not to say school districts can't have a hand in it."

The district and its five Toledo Board of Education members have said passage of the levy is key to saving school system jobs and programs.

The board is facing a $30 million budget hole next fiscal year. Board members want to raise $18.1 million through the 0.75 percent levy on earned income for Toledo residents living inside the school district. The remainder would come from cuts and union concessions.

Toledo and other big-city districts have been grappling with shrinking enrollment and stagnant tax bases as they negotiate with school unions for concessions. For every student who transfers to a charter school, TPS loses $5,800 in state tax money, officials say.

To close the budget hole, school board members approved two sets of systemwide cuts on April 1.

Board members voted to eliminate elementary summer school and cut freshman sports and are hoping to gain $3.3 million in savings from union concessions that have yet to be approved.

If the levy fails, school officials would add more cuts and make other changes, including increasing class size, eliminating school crossing guards, merging the district's single-gender Lincoln Academy for Boys and Ella P. Stewart Academy for Girls, scaling back bus service, reducing programs offered at Toledo Technology Academy, and eliminating high school sports with low participation, such as golf and tennis.

Missing from both lists of approved cuts was Toledo Early College High School, which had been slated for elimination in earlier proposals.

Also missing was South Toledo's Libbey High, which has been the subject of emotional pleas and debate over the years and at several recent public hearings about the proposed budget cuts.

The board voted to save the school, but the move threw three negotiated union deals into flux.

As of yesterday, TPS unions and school officials were still locked in negotiations over how to shave $1.3 million in expenses that saving Libbey will cost the school system annually.

To balance the budget for next fiscal year, some of the money must come from the pockets of employees, school officials and board members say. That's mainly because payroll last year made up more than two-thirds of the district's $290 million operating budget, they said.

The three main bargaining units - administrators, teachers, and support staff - had agreed to across-the-board 1 percent cuts as well as increases to health insurance co-pays for savings of $3.3 million.

TPS Superintendent John Foley said he will have to tweak discretionary budgets that purchase supplies for various departments and look for other savings.

"We had to go back to the drawing board. Everything is being impacted," he said. "Some of the reductions in [administrators] was based on closing Libbey. I have to make reductions in other things, now."

Contact Christopher D. Kirkpatrick at:

ckirkpatrick@theblade.com

or 419-724-6134.



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