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Published: Tuesday, 8/31/2010

Springfield school leaders worry voters may think federal funds end financial woes

BY JANET ROMAKER
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Springfield School officials are welcoming the award of nearly $442,000 in federal funds, but there's some concern about the timing of the windfall, several weeks ahead of a critical vote on a tax levy.

Treasurer Bob Moellenberg said during the school board's meeting last week he is concerned voters might think the district's financial problems are over. That's not the case, and voters need to know that, he said.

The $442,000 cannot be used to replace laid-off personnel. It most likely will be targeted for student academic achievement, but so far no guidelines have been spelled out, he said, and a lot of strings will be attached.

The district has been struggling financially because of several factors, including the sour economy, a decline in state funding, a decrease in property taxes, and an increase in delinquent property tax payments, which this year total more than $2 million.

Before the start of the 2009-2010 school year, the board trimmed $600,000 from its operating budget, and in February approved $1.6 million in cuts for the new school year. After the May levy defeat, the board slashed an additional $1.5 million from the 2010-11 budget, in part through teacher layoffs. School officials have said defeat of the levy in November could mean deeper cuts, and a list of possible reductions is to be made public before the election.

The Race to the Top money "will not help one iota as far as reductions," Mr. Moellenberg said in an interview after the meeting. "It can't bring back bus drivers, custodians, English teachers, social studies teachers, that type of thing."

He wants to make sure district residents understand that. Sometimes, he said, people will see a large amount of government money being awarded to a district and not realize it cannot be applied to day-to-day operations. "That is frustrating to us," he said.

Superintendent Kathryn Hott explained that the $442,000 will be split up over four years, and she too said the district is still waiting for word on details.

Race to the Top is a $4.35 billion program that dangles a carrot before states for funding on top of previously approved federal subsidies and stimulus dollars. Participating states and schools had to agree to enact certain reforms, such as efforts to improve academic performance among African-American and rural students, training of teachers, assessments, data collection and analysis, and college preparedness.

Because explanations about the Race to the Top money were fuzzy, and because they figured the longer-term costs of the reforms would outweigh short-term benefits, some school districts opted not to apply for the funds.

Mr. Moellenberg said it's nice to get the money, and he was glad Springfield was awarded it. Springfield was one of several districts in the Toledo area that were awarded money as part of the Race to the Top competition, a centerpiece of President Obama's education reform policies.

The awards included $10.8 million for Toledo Public Schools, $253,506 for Oregon, $179,354 for Maumee, and $100,000 for Perrysburg.

Funds were awarded to two states in the first round this year, but the U.S. Department of Education approved 10 states this time.

Also during the board meeting last week, when presenting his treasurer's report, Mr. Moellenberg noted the district's budget at the end of July was within a week of not having enough cash for payroll.

If the levy doesn't pass in November, the district could be looking at borrowing to have sufficient cash flow, and that would wind up as an additional expense because of legal fees and interest costs, he said.

Springfield hasn't been in the position of borrowing funds to pay its bills for many years, probably not since the early 1990s, he said.

District taxpayers will vote Nov. 2 on a 3.9-mill continuing operating levy.

If approved, the levy is estimated to generate $2.8 million a year and would cost the owner of a $100,000 house about $119 a year. In May, district residents defeated a 3.9-mill, five-year operating levy.

Ahead of the election, a list needs to be developed to outline to voters what would happen in the 2011-12 school year if the levy fails, school officials have said.

Mr. Moellenberg said the reality is that the school board has made $3.1 million in three levels of cuts. What is left to eliminate is the question, he said.

"It will be up to the board to select what they feel they can live with, not that anybody really wants to do that.

The problem at this point is that it is extremely difficult to make those kind of reductions without getting into serious issues people do not want to see," he said.

Serious issues possibly could involve cuts in programming and activities such as sports.



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