Prepared Notes for Board Meeting – Levy

August 17, 2009

Marc A. Schare

 614 791-0067

marc9@aol.com

 

 

For almost four years now, Worthington School District administrators and interested constituents have graciously allowed me to read prepared statements on issues large and small and I hope I haven’t abused the privilege.  I have been very involved in all aspects of this levy decision and Worthington should take as an article of faith that several months of hard work and tedious calculation went into it.

 

I could spend a lot of time this evening talking numbers – levy size this and health care that, state funding, tangible tax reimbursements, valuations, ending cash balances, natural gas, community school tuition, step increases, transportation costs, bond money, where I agree with the Treasurer and where I think he’s wrong ad infinitum, but I think that after a while, all you would hear is the same “Blah Blah Blah Blah Blah Blah Blah”. So I’m not going to do that, not because those discussions aren’t important – there will be time to discuss them when we approve the next forecast, but because those discussions serve to obscure the bigger picture and tonight  is a night to stay focused on the big picture.

 

Professor Wilson and I, much to the occasional amusement of the audience, seldom agree on much of anything, but his speech about the loss of quality and opportunity in the Worthington School District over the last decade or so struck a nerve with me. We used to offer DARE in the elementary schools and DECA in the high schools. We used to offer German and Japanese, we’ve eliminate technology people while dramatically increasing available technology, we lack nurses and guidance counselors, instructional  coaches, special education assistants, the list goes on. In 2003, we cut over 9 million dollars resulting in fewer classes at the high schools and reduced opportunities for both our students and our staff. In fact, throughout this decade, Worthington Schools has been perceived in “cut” mode, a slow steady drip-drip-drip of reductions. The only reason we’ve gotten away with it this long without serious damage is because of sustained declining enrollment and a dedicated teaching staff, but declining enrollment is over. More acutely, we are unable to add anything programmatically and worse, the forecast suggests that the drip-drip-drip, like any leaky pipe has the potential to turn into a gusher.

 

Through it all, our demographics have changed, requiring more money to be diverted to special education, low English proficiency students  and now, fully 20% of our students are eligible for federal assistance. Frankly, central office staff has done an amazing, thankless job at keeping our test scores up and our costs as low as possible and they never get the credit they deserve. You people are wizards  at cost-neutral additions to the program and increasing opportunity without cost but I fear even your talent is not without limit.

 

We not only perceive this demographic change in our buildings but in our community as well. The median income in Worthington has declined in this decade with an implication that their ability and willingness to pay higher taxes would have also declined. We see this also reflected in the past three operating tax votes, our levys in 2006 and 2009 and the Columbus City Income Tax just two weeks ago – all three defeated by substantial margins throughout our district. Even before the demographic shift, Worthington voters were reluctant to pass levys above 7 mills and in fact has not done so since 1991.

 

Since Professor Wilson made his observations last week, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about his words, pulling articles from “This Week” archives about previous boards wrestling with previous cut lists and wondering if this is, in fact, our future. This levy and the forecast upon which it is based promises five more years of the same. Vote for us and look at all the stuff we’ll cut. Heck, our last levy campaign bragged about the amount of stuff that was cut. This has got to stop. It is time to focus on the root cause of the problem.

 

For the next few minutes, I’m going to talk about rising employee costs because any meaningful discussion of levys, budgets or cuts without mentioning this is not productive. I am not making a value judgment about employee costs and while I’m sure that some in the audience will hear the anti-teacher message they are expecting, that is not the intent. The intent is to lay out our problem in simple terms.

 

The facts are these. We are unwilling or unable to levy enough local dollars to keep up with rising employee costs. Throughout this decade, we have increased salaries and we have suffered the cost of health care increases and our levys have not kept up. The difference between the amount that would have to be levied and the amount that was levied must be made up in programmatic cuts assuming that state funding is status quo. In this current levy cycle, we are assuming 2% to 7% salary increases and 13% health care increases throughout the forecast period. Again, I am not making a value judgment on those assumptions, but the amount that we are levying is insufficient to pay those increases and the result is the Phase One cut list which has been put into effect. If the levy fails, those increases still get paid and the phase three cut list goes into effect but make no mistake. Today’s Phase 3 levy fail cut list will be the levy pass cut list in the years to come and the result over time is the steady drip-drip-drip as described above.

 

I’ve spoken about financial Armageddon and you’re all tired of hearing about it. I get that, but the reality is that financial Armageddon is already here. We will continue to cut because Worthington will not pass levys of the size necessary to keep up with the rising cost of labor. The only two alternatives are to levy sufficient dollars or slow the rate of increases. We are clearly reluctant to take either path so the result is, again, a drip-drip-drip loss of quality and opportunity over time. This is not a political statement, it simply is fact.

 

This is not to say that stuff shouldn’t be cut. Clearly, our superintendent and her staff has done a tremendous job at weeding out inefficiency and the cut lists to be offered as part of this campaign represent, unlike so many others in Franklin County, an effort at cutting without harming the program but eventually, as some of the reductions indicate, you get to the point where cuts will hurt. I commend this Superintendent and this Treasurer for not trotting out the immediate loss of sports and the other threats so commonly used in this business and for allowing the community to prioritize the lists. Folks, we have something special here with Dr. Conrath and Treasurer McCuen and Worthington is blessed to have them at this critical time in our history.

 

Now, as for tonight’s vote, I stated last week that I’d have a difficult time voting for a  levy above 5.9 mills. I have changed my mind and I will vote affirmatively to put the higher millage on the ballot. I believe that any of my previous suggestions for lower millage was workable and my colleagues will tell you I tried hard, very hard, to fight to get consensus on a lower amount or a two year levy but at the end of day, I lost. My choice tonight is relatively simple. Do I give Worthington the chance to vote on the administration’s recommended levy or do I withhold that opportunity. If the request was outrageously high or completely inappropriate, I would feel differently, but it’s not. The different between my levy and the administration’s choice for the average Worthington house was a total of $107 over three years. For that difference,  I don’t have the right to deny my constituents the choice.

 

I want to take just a few more minutes and discuss how I’m going vote in the privacy of the booth on November 3rd. My vote is one of the 20-30% that is up for grabs and could potentially be influenced one way or the other by the nature of our campaign. If we run a negative campaign with a message of “Give us our money or else”, I’m going to vote no in November and I think I’ll have a lot of company. If, on the other hand, I see a district taking a  serious look at the very real challenges facing us, I would be more inclined to give our district the time it needs to get us on a sustainable path with reasonable levys at reasonable intervals. To accomplish this, to get a campaign message that I and other undecided’s could get behind, I have a proposal.

 

We need the equivalent of a Manhattan project in Worthington, a Sustainability project that will focus on this issue. We have heard the need for this effort from groups all across the district, from Educate Worthington and their followers to the Treasurer’s advisory committee, from former board members and levy campaign chairs to our harshest critics and from parents and boosters who want us to get this under control while we still have time. We can’t just be worried about sustainability when its levy time, this needs to be part of our culture and not in a negative way. I’ve heard loud and clear that any such effort must have support from our employee associations. You want to be partners in running the district, your input as to how to accomplish what we need to accomplish would be invaluable. If my colleagues agree, it is my hope that we use some time at our work session on August 24 to discuss the parameters of the sustainability project.

 

The choice is ours, a brighter future for students, staff and taxpayers or the steady drip-drip-drip of lost or missed opportunities. I thank you for your indulgence.