By CARL E. FEATHER - firstname.lastname@example.org
THOMPSON TOWNSHIP —
Lake effect snow made for slow going on the rural roads of Thompson and Montville townships on Friday afternoon. A Ledgemont Local Schools employee could not shovel fast enough to keep the sidewalks clear for the last day of school this year.
Inside the 1986 building, Treasurer Kelly Moore and Superintendent Julie Ramos face a similar Catch 22 — the district’s revenues can’t keep up with the blizzard of expenses. As a result, Ledgemont owes the state more than $2.7 million and has been in fiscal emergency since October 2010. The most recent ramification of the district’s financial troubles came earlier this month, when the board of education voted to reduce busing to state minimum standards.
When classes resume in January, all 196 high school students will have to find their own transportation to the Thompson Road school. Additionally, 47 elementary and 17 junior-high students who previously had bus transportation will lose their busing to the Burrows Road building.
Ledgemont sends 23 students to the A-Tech school in Jefferson, and voters in the Ledgemont District have a voice in any tax issues that fund A-Tech. Ramos says the shuttle buses that run between Thompson and Jefferson won’t be affected by the busing changes; however, the A-Tech students from the district will have to find their own way to the high school, from which the bus departs.
Further, starting with spring activities, all extracurriculars must be revenue-neutral. That means, for example, if five students sign up for track and the program cost is $5,000, the cost to participate will be $1,000 per student.
“It’s worse than pay to play, because the participants pay the entire cost,” said State Representative-elect John Patterson, who recently spent a day talking with Ramos and Moore about Ledgemont’s fiscal problems. “That could be very hefty.”
Ramos predicts that the latest cuts, which were recommended to the board by the state fiscal committee, will push more families to open enroll in neighboring districts in Lake, Ashtabula and Geauga counties. Moore says the district already has a net loss of $400,000 annually to open enrollment.
“If these kids start to go to Chardon, Newbury or Cardinal, the (state) money is going to follow these kids and further decimate the district,” Patterson said.
The district, which has 643 students and two buildings, has been in and out of fiscal emergency status for 27 years.
“Historically speaking, the district has always been in and out of financial difficulties,” says Ramos. “A report from 1923 talks about merging. This is nothing new.”
What is new, however, is the gravity of the situation following defeat of a 3.4-mill levy in November. There is very left to be cut in the district, whose debt burden to the state is around half of its annual budget of $6 million. While the district is making its payments to the state on time, those payments are really just a shuffling of money. About the same time the district made a payment of $1 million to the state, it borrowed another $1.11 million.
Ramos and Moore say the district needs to raise an additional $1.5 million annually in order to pay off the state debt and get itself on sound financial footing. The board plans to ask voters for the money in May, and although the exact millage of the five-year issue has not been certified, it is estimated to be around 15 mills, a 75 percent increase in school taxes.
That is in addition to the income tax that the district receives on the earned income of residents of Thompson and Montville townships. Moore says one of the reasons why the district is in debt to the state is because voters did not renew a .75 income tax issue when it came up in 2010. It was approved the following year, but the district lost two years of collections, or about $1 million annually.
“With a budget of only $6 million, that $1 million is huge,” Moore says.
Geography also plays a role in the district’s financial woes. Being rural, the townships have very little in way of industry, putting virtually all of the funding burden on citizens, who, like many other Ohioans, have kept a lid on their spending when it comes time to support schools. Ramos says the district’s small size also hurts because they have to send the special education students to the program run by the county’s educational service center, which bills the district for those services.
The district also must deal with the challenges facing all Ohio school districts: reduced state funding, rising health insurance premiums, falling property values and a sluggish economy. And, because the district’s income tax is on earned income only, retired residents don’t pay it, which has resulted in receipts lower than originally anticipated.
The district needs a serious infusion of cash.
“We’re beyond the spaghetti dinner fundraiser,” Ramos says.
Even her 3/4-time position reflects the precarious state of finances at Ledgemont. The other quarter of her time goes to the ESC.
She says that arrangement is challenging from a public relations perspective; parents expect the superintendent to attend the school functions and athletic contests, but her obligation to the ESC makes that difficult.
“I’m not as visible (as a full-time superintendent), and it is hard to adjust to that,” she says.
Even if Ramos is at times invisible, Ledgemont’s financial challenges don’t disappear from her mind. She and the board have looked at a variety of creative scenarios, including consolidating the entire district into one building, where elementary students would attend in the morning and high school students in the afternoon and evening. But that arrangement would destroy the district’s athletics program and therefore hit a dead end.
“Athletics is a very big thing in this district,” Moore says.
“(The district) truly is the heart of the community, and athletics is a huge thing,” Ramos says.
While residents of the district have pride in their schools and don’t want the state to force a merger with another district, a majority have yet to put their money behind that pride. The last issue went down by about 100 votes. Ramos says it will take a huge outreach effort to convince the voters to approve the $1.5-million emergency issue in May.
“We’ve cut our spending to the point we are at the minimum (in most areas),” Moore says. “A lot of families want to support the district, but financially, they can’t swing it.”
Patterson said he is taking a special interest in the Ledgemont District, which is part of the redrawn 99th, because it is a harbinger of what will happen in other districts where voters refuse to approve new operating money. Ramos says the district’s financial difficulties ought to send two messages to Ashtabula County — voters need to support their schools, and administration and the school board need to have a strategic plan. The latter is something the board and administrative team is developing; the former will be decided by the voters come May 7, 2013.
Meanwhile, Ramos is open to suggestions, and Patterson has pledged to help however he can as a rookie legislator. That includes the simple act of having faith.
“I told them not to give up hope,” Patterson said. “I saw the fire in their eyes, and we have to have faith the size of a mustard seed, even in the direst of circumstances.”