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Published: Wednesday, 8/25/2010

Toledo Public Schools discovers an extra $824,000

BY CHRISTOPHER D. KIRKPATRICK
BLADE STAFF WRITER

With classes about to start, Toledo Public Schools officials said they discovered an extra $824,000 in the budget from an "oversight" and will use the money to rehire laid-off crossing guards.

Board members expressed disbelief there could be such a miscalculation after months of angst-filled debate over where to slash services affecting student safety.

"This is very unsettling for all board members because we're making decisions based on that information," board President Bob Vasquez said. "… If I can find someone else who made an error, I'll take that money, too."

Calling the budget error unacceptable, school board member Larry Sykes said Tuesday after hearing the news that he wants an outside audit of school-system finances to uncover other unaccounted-for money.

"Parents are just frantic," Mr. Sykes said.

New Superintendent Jerome Pecko said the company that staffs crossing guards for the district assured him they would be ready for tomorrow, the first day of school.

The Toledo Board of Education voted unanimously last night to use about $500,000 to bring back the guards.

There was no decision on how the rest of the money would be used.

But Mr. Pecko said he would like to hire additional guards because more students will be walking farther this year because of cuts to school bus service.

After a May levy failed and facing a $39 million deficit, the board voted in June to lay off all district crossing guards.

The board also voted to extend walking zones from 1 mile to 2 miles, the state limit, and canceled bus service for all high schoolers, among a slate of other cuts.

The changes to bus service affect 5,000 students - about one in five students in the district- and shaved about $2 million in transportation costs.

The high school students, plus some attending charter and parochial schools, previously received TARTA vouchers paid for by the school district under a multimillion-dollar contract.

TARTA also handled some special routes for the school system.

Mr. Pecko said the budget error occurred because school transportation officials didn't reduce the amount of money the district would need to pay TARTA this year when it cut districtwide bus service.

The new superintendent started Aug. 2.

That was after the budget cuts were finalized and the current budget was balanced by the board and former superintendent.

Mr. Pecko told The Blade before last night's meeting that "it was an honest mistake" by school officials and that he and other administrators caught the error while examining the budget during the middle of last week.

He said the original 60 crossing guards will be reinstated with some tweaks because the traffic landscape has changed with new detours and some relocations of schools.

He said he's asked principals to identify other hot-spot intersections where there might be new traffic concerns.

And with extended walking zones this year, Mr. Pecko said he would like to use the rest of the money to try to cover new areas with additional guards at corners where many students will be passing through for the first time.

Mr. Pecko said he and other administrators have discussed using federal money approved by Congress and signed into law by President Obama two weeks ago to rehire some bus drivers.

The money can be used to rehire support staff such as bus drivers but can't be used to service the vehicles or to pay for gas or maintenance.

Ohio's share of the $10 billion in federal money is $361 million, but the state hasn't decided how it will dole it out to Ohio's 614 districts.

The school board this year also approved eliminating or reducing other services, closing Libbey High School, laying off about 400 employees, and negotiating union concessions.

To help close another deficit for the 2011-2012 school year, voters will be asked for a 7.8-mill levy in November that would raise about $22 million annually.

If approved, it would be the largest ever new-money levy for the district.

And board members would be able to collect a year and a half's worth of taxes to put toward a $44 million deficit already projected for the 2011-2012 fiscal year.

The board still would have to find about $11 million in savings and will push for more union concessions, Mr. Pecko said.

Contact Christopher D. Kirkpatrick at:

ckirkpatrick@theblade.com

or 419-724-6134.



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