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Published: Thursday, 5/10/2012 - Updated: 2 years ago

TPS panel OKs levy request

Full board to consider issue that could add $18.5 yearly

BY NOLAN ROSENKRANS
BLADE STAFF WRITER

The Toledo Board of Education took its first step toward a levy campaign Wednesday, when its finance committee endorsed a 6.9 mill levy to be put on the November ballot.

The full board is expected to vote on the levy request at a special meeting tentatively set for Monday. If approved then, voters would be asked to increase property taxes about $127 for a $60,000 home, a move that would garner about $18.5 million a year for Toledo Public Schools.

School officials said they view this year and this levy campaign as a "tipping point," arguing that positive momentum is building behind reforms in the district, and now is the time to solidify the school system's ailing finances.

"It is critical for this school system [that this levy passes]," TPS board member Bob Vasquez said, "but even more than that, it is critical for the city."

Polling conducted for the district by Stanford H. Odesky & Associates Market Research of Toledo showed about 46 percent of voters would support a levy near the amount advocated by the finance committee; 32 percent were against a levy at that amount, and about 21 percent undecided.

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Voters haven't embraced recent levy requests, rejecting ballot initiatives twice in 2010. Voters have not approved a new levy for the Toledo school district's general fund since 2000. Bonnie Berland of Stanford H. Odesky said their recent polling showed an improvement over past years in support for a new levy, largely because of an increase in optimism about economic conditions.

However, while minorities usually overwhelmingly supported levies in the past, that base of support appears to have eroded, according to the polling.

The district's budget is balanced through fiscal year 2013, thanks in large part to steep concessions approved by its employee unions, but Toledo Public Schools projects a nearly $40 million annual deficit by fiscal year 2016. Passage of a levy is needed, TPS officials say, to implement the next stages of its transformation plan and maintain the current programs developed in the past year. Thematic high schools, a science, technology, engineering, math, and medicine K8 school, and development of a talented and gifted program for grades 3-6 are among programs TPS wants to initiate with funding from the levy.

Most of the elements of the transformation plan implemented this year depend on grant funding that will run out in the next few years, forcing TPS to use general funds or cut the programs. A failure at the polls in November wouldn't just kill those programs; it would mean steep cuts again for TPS -- the district estimates the cuts would be $22 million before the 2013-2014 school year -- likely causing immediate and significant increases to class sizes, chief academic officer Jim Gault said.

TPS treasurer Matt Cleland said that, unlike past levy requests where voters chose between status quo or cuts, this year voters have a choice between growth and improvement in school programming, or regression. He and other administrators claim that reforms initiated this year -- such as the move to K8 buildings and overhauls of low performing schools -- have widespread community support and built a sense of positive momentum.

"That could be our levy slogan," board member Cecelia Adams said, "Keep the momentum going."

Union contracts negotiated last year don't include financial triggers to re-open, Mr. Gault said, so passage of a levy wouldn't go automatically toward employee compensation. Staff, led first by the Toledo Federation of Teachers, accepted pay cuts of 2.5 percent, automatic longevity pay freezes, and increased shares in health-care costs. Contracts were also for two years, in part to assure voters that a 2012 levy would not initially be used for salaries.

Passage of a 6.9-mill levy would balance the books at TPS through fiscal year 2015, but a deficit would emerge the following year. A larger levy of 8.4 mills would cover that shortfall, but those who were polled were not in favor of that amount.

TPS Superintendent Jerome Pecko said the special meeting tentatively will be held at 8 a.m. Monday at the Thurgood Marshall Building, 420 E. Manhattan Boulevard.

Contact Nolan Rosenkrans at: nrosenkrans@theblade.com or 419-724-6086.



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