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Published: Wednesday, 4/20/2011

Sylvania levy's backers rally voters

Meetings aim to explain what would happen if 4.9-mill levy fails May 3

BY DAVID PATCH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Leaders of the campaign committee for the 4.9-mill school levy on Sylvania's May 3 special-election ballot rallied the troops during three "levy conversation" meetings last week, warning that the alternative to a $150 annual tax increase is to undermine superior education that underpins quality of life and property value in the community.

"Folks are tax-weary. Folks are making choices in their own budgets every day," Deb Jennings, the levy committee's co-chairman, told a gathering of about 15 people Thursday evening at McCord Junior High School that was the last of the sessions. "But we have to think long and hard before we cut [school spending] any further."

While acknowledging that, for many families, the $150 in annual tax the levy would cost for each $100,000 in their homes' assessed values is not a trivial amount, "you don't get more value for your buck than you do from a dollar spent on schools," Ms. Jennings said.

And Tony Moody -- who reported that one of his two sons boosted his grade-point average by nearly 1 1/2 points after moving to Sylvania from the Toledo school district -- said it "would be a heartbreak for me and my family" if the levy failed, because Sylvania schools' quality persuaded him to buy a house in town instead of moving away from the area.

But at the same time as he implored supporters to get out the vote, Superintendent of Schools Brad Rieger last week also issued a "contingency plan" listing budget cuts he would recommend for the 2011-12 school year should the levy fail.

All district funding for athletics, clubs, and other extracurricular activities would be eliminated, as would transportation for high school students, and class sizes would increase while elective courses, intervention programs, guidance counseling, and other services would be reduced or eliminated if the contingency plan took effect.

In a supporting letter, Mr. Rieger said a next round of cuts would affect between 50 and 60 jobs, on top of 120 already cut since last year.

The schools superintendent said he drafted the plan, which contained no dollar amounts, in response to parents' requests for information about what a rejection at the polls would mean, and sent it to the parents of Sylvania students Wednesday.

"People want to know what's at stake. We've gone through two rounds of cuts already," Mr. Rieger said.

The listed programs include many items that had been on the 2011-12 chopping block during the winter after district voters defeated a similar 4.9-mill levy request Nov. 2, but were saved when district teachers, administrators, and support staff agreed to pay concessions worth $1.4 million and accepted retirement incentives that will mean some upcoming job cuts are to be made through attrition rather than layoffs.

Of the estimated $7.1 million the levy's latest version would generate in annual revenue, about $3 million would be collected early enough in 2012 to contribute to the 2011-12 school budget.

Were the levy proposal to fail May 3 but be resubmitted to voters and pass on a later 2011 ballot, that same revenue would be collected. But Mr. Rieger said that if it fails now, he will recommend a full third round of spending cuts to the Board of Education, because the alternative of proceeding in hopes of an August or November reprieve contains an unacceptable risk of having to cut programs and lay off staff during the school year.

Though not heavily attended, the "levy conversation" meetings were open to all and did attract at least a few skeptics.

Ken Saggese, a father of two Sylvania students, said during the third meeting that he had a hard time supporting the levy "even though I want to" because it seemed like the district's spending had increased much faster than its revenue in recent years.

"It seems like I pay a lot of taxes already," Mr. Saggese said, adding later, "What [programs] did we add since 2007? We didn't add football. We didn't add Cougar Review."

Mr. Rieger explained that revenue doesn't rise with expenses because levies are approved for fixed amounts. So while costs escalate annually with inflation and pay increases, levy funding runs in cycles, so the school district historically has run surpluses during the years immediately after a new levy's passage that then erode once expenses outstrip the new money.

"We knew, even back in November, that we needed more" than the 4.9 mills, the superintendent said, but the district's financial advisory group said a higher request -- 7.5 mills, perhaps -- stood no chance of passing.

The schools' financial need is even greater now, but the chance of a higher request passing after the Nov. 2 defeat was too poor to pursue that, he said.

"We need 4.9 just to save what we have," Mr. Rieger said. "We have to get this just to stay afloat."



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