4.9-mill TPS levy would cost owner of $100,000 home about $150 per year


Of the seven levy requests facing Toledo voters on Election Day, the largest by far is from Toledo Public Schools.

The district is asking for a new 10-year, 4.9-mill levy that would generate $13.3 million annually and would cost the owner of a $100,000 house $150.06 a year. A successful levy, school leaders say, would be used to implement the next stages of the district's transformation plan and maintain programming.

Levy dollars would essentially go toward three areas: maintaining programs currently funded by soon-to-expire grants, covering new elements of the transformation plan, and maintaining budget stability to avoid significant cuts.

District officials say they need about $1.2 million of the money to preserve existing programs.

About $400,000 would pay for credit recovery, a computer-based program that allows hundreds of high school students to make up failed courses. District officials say they think the program could boost graduation rates.

Another $500,000 would fund the Early High School Options program, where advanced seventh and eighth graders travel in the afternoon to high schools to take courses.

And $300,000 would continue to fund athletic programs recently reinstated by the district, such as freshmen sports. District leaders also hope to expand new distance-learning labs, in which lessons taught at one school are beamed by computer to other schools, though district officials hope to accomplish that without higher cost.

In new programming, the largest initiative is the proposed creation of thematic high schools within the district’s six neighborhood high schools. About $1.25 million would go to create the schools, such as a performing-arts school at Bowsher and an International Baccalaureate program at Start.

A new parent outreach program, which includes a rapid text and email system, social media outreach, and potentially online features that allow parents to view their children's grades at home would cost about $100,000.

A planned digital classroom pilot program, which could eventually expand districtwide, would cost about $150,000. Each student would receive state-of-the-art technology and use online curriculum, while teachers would utilize online centers for coursework and tests.

The district has planned a $1 million gifted and talented program that would be either a stand-alone school or in various locations. That program may be connected to a planned science, technology, engineering, math, and medicine school the district hopes to develop with a $3 million grant for which it has applied.

And the district also wants to start a $200,000 music-enrichment program, in which upper-grade students in the K-8 schools would go to high schools for part of the day to participate in orchestras and bands.

That leaves about $9 million to sustain traditional classroom activities, district officials said. The district’s budget is essentially balanced through fiscal year 2014, but large deficits appear the following year.

To close the gap, the district would either need to extract another round of concessions from unions — which recently gave up 3.5 percent in pay and even more in increased health care costs — or lay off staff.

Since pay is subject to negotiations and concessions can’t be guaranteed, district Chief Academic Officer Jim Gault said, cuts would force increasing class sizes to an average of about 35 from the current 25.

Such cuts could prompt some parents to pull their students out of the Toledo schools, and falling enrollment would reduce state funding which would in turn force more budget cuts.

Organized opposition to the levy recently formed, with members of the Northwest Ohio Conservative Coalition passing out “Vote No” signs for all property levies in Lucas County.

John McAvoy, a board member of the coalition, said his group doesn’t uniformly oppose property taxes, but instead has individual concerns for each request. He wants the Toledo schools to arrange for the state auditor’s office to review the district’s operations, noting that his group endorsed a Lake Local Schools levy request after such a performance audit was done there.

“We supported Lake’s levy because they showed they did need the money,” he said.

A performance audit has been frequently advocated by several local conservative media members. District leaders are considering a performance audit, but have yet to commit to one. District officials say they’ve already cut significantly from their budget, citing a drop in expenses from $350 million in fiscal year 2009 to $307 million this year.

Skeptical voters may suspect a new levy would just go toward staff pay raises. Union contracts run another year, and there are no triggers to reopen the contract. But the district may face tough labor negotiations if it finds itself with new funds, especially if negotiations end up in arbitration.

District Treasurer Matt Cleland conceded there’s no way to guarantee an outside arbitrator wouldn’t bust the district’s budget in later years by awarding unions hefty raises from the early surpluses. “My hope is that the unions will see, down the road, that this is all about a plan to balance us for a number of years,” he said.

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