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Published: Tuesday, 10/19/2010

Deficit looms for Sylvania schools

BY DAVID PATCH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Whether or not a 4.9-mill operating levy the Sylvania school district has placed on the Nov. 2 ballot passes, there are likely to be unhappy faces afterward.

A draft version of the school district's updated five-year financial forecast, presented to the Sylvania Board of Education last week, shows that even if voters approve the tax and about $7.3 million in annual revenue it is expected to generate, the district's expenses will exceed revenue by more than $4 million in the current fiscal year, $2.9 million in fiscal 2012, and $5.4 million in fiscal 2013.

The latter deficit would put the district $4.6 million into the red after draining the last of an $816,000 cash reserve that is forecast to be on hand at the end of the 2011-2012 school year.

Without the tax, the Sylvania schools virtually will exhaust their cash balance at the current school year's end and go $10.1 million into the red next year if nothing else changes, the forecast shows.

The red ink would deepen to $22.9 million in 2012-2013 without additional revenue or heftier spending cuts.

But the draft forecast that Laura Sauber, the district's treasurer, explained to the school board arrives at a time when Sylvanians are showing clear signs of tax fatigue.

Diana Moeller, a Westcliffe Court resident, asked the school board if officials knew, when they promoted a 2.89-mill bond levy district voters approved two years ago to replace three elementary schools and renovate other district buildings, that the operating budget would come up short so soon.

"We predicted then that we would be back on the ballot in 2010 for operating funds," board member David Spiess responded. Operating levies and bond levies represent "two different pots of money" and revenue from the 2008 levy is for construction only.

Ms. Moeller said that, regardless of how the funds are allocated, Sylvania's school taxes are discouraging several house-shoppers she knows from even considering Sylvania and prompting another friend to move out of town.

"When is it going to quit?" she said. "It's a lot you're asking for. A lot of us are making less money because of the economy. Do we always have to have the best of everything there is?"

The planned replacement of Central Elementary School also has become a lightning rod for critics annoyed that the district spent $200,000 on environmental studies of property on Wolfinger Road, which was dropped from consideration because of extensive wetlands. It also forfeited $15,000 it paid to obtain a purchase option on the site, but officials expect to be repaid for mortgage payments the district covered while holding the option, which expired last month.

Sylvania's school taxes, third-highest in Lucas County behind Ottawa Hills and Maumee, include 72.20 mills in property tax for general operations, although inflation over time means the effective rate is 37.04 mills, according to the county auditor. The district collects an additional 5.5 mills in bond and perma-nent improvement levies.

One mill equals $1 of tax for each $1,000 of assessed property value. If approved, the new 4.9-mill levy would cost the owner of a $100,000 home about $150 in annual tax.

The Sylvania financial forecast's timing is set by state law requiring Ohio school districts to do such planning annually and file reports with the state Department of Education by Oct. 31. The draft that Ms. Sauber presented to the school board last week covered just the next three years, but district spokesman Nancy Crandell said a full five-year version will be ready for the school board's Oct. 25 meeting.

The draft version shows that without the new levy, district revenue slowly will decline during the next three fiscal years, from $75.2 million last year to $74.6 million in 2012-2013, even as expenses rise from $82.5 million last year to a projected $87.4 million in fiscal 2013.

The school board on May 24 voted to cut the full-time equivalent of 45 jobs - including 23.5 teaching positions - as part of a $4.2 million package of cuts to keep the 2010-11 budget only $7,000 higher than last year's, but Mr. Rieger warned then too that ever-increasing costs coupled with declining property tax revenue and state funding cuts likely would force the district to put a levy question on the ballot and make more spending cuts.

The May 24 cuts were approved after several board meetings during which parents and teachers made impassioned pleas for reconsiderations. With employee salaries and benefits accounting for 85 percent of the district's budget, similarly unpopular cuts are virtually certain to be on the table should the levy fail. During an Oct. 7 campaign forum, Superintendent Brad Rieger said that even if the levy passes, about $2 million in budget cuts are likely for next school year.

"We should be asking for a larger millage to cover the forecasted deficit, but in deference to the economy and anticipated state funding changes, we are doing our part to try and keep the levy request more manageable for the community," Nancy Crandell, a district spokesman, said last week.



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