KINGSVILLE — Many people said they were shocked and saddened by the Ashtabula County Board of Developmental Disabilities’ decision to close Happy Hearts school this week. But local education officials are already looking at potential alternatives.
John Rubesich, Ashtabula County Educational Service Center superintendent, said he wanted to assure parents of students who attend Happy Hearts that their children will be served. He has meetings planned with the DD Board and hopes to be able to continue the services and program through the Educational Service Center.
“We run many special needs programs throughout the county. … That’s what we do. We as an agency are a shared service provider for all of our school districts,” he said.
One option that could be discussed is seeing the Educational Service Center take over the service but still work with the DD Board.
“Maybe those students are served through the (Educational Service Center) but we contract through DD Board to do that,” Rubesich said. “I think there’s some really good opportunities that we can come up with.”
DD Board President Andrew Misiak said the board is looking at all possible avenues, but if Happy Hearts endures in some form, it will be a different setup no longer run directly by the board.
“We are still exploring all of those avenues,” Misiak said, adding, “There’s going to be some new beginnings. Every new beginning comes from another beginning’s end. We are still in the business of providing services for those DD clients.”
Finding a way to provide services in a centralized location is important, Rubesich said, because if the students at Happy Hearts and its satellite locations have to return to their home district then cash-strapped schools will need to hire their own nurses, therapists and paraprofessionals rather than having a centralized and mainstreamed system that gets “the biggest bang for your buck.”
In November, the board had sought to increase one of its two 1.33-mill levies to 2 mills, which would have generated an additional $2 million per year, on top of the $6 million it currently receives each year in property tax revenue. The board has been spending at a deficit since 2008 and had a cash balance to start this year of only about $6,000.
Anne Zeitler, DD Board superintendent, said prior to November the board last went to voters for additional funding back in 2003. She said the board waited until they absolutely needed the money.
“We were not expecting the levy to fail. ... We waited until we had to ask for dollars. We knew it was coming, we weren’t expecting the failure,” she said.
Lori Reynolds, DD Board director of finance, added that the board tried to follow the existing levy schedule so they only were on the ballot when a measure was up for renewal.
Misiak said waiting to go to voters was a case of the board wanting to be responsible with taxpayer dollars.
“Really, with the makeup of the county, we don’t want to go to voters and ask for money unless it was absolutely necessary. We’re not trying to line our pockets or have huge carry over (balances). … Maybe we should have asked for more money, but we were trying to be responsible,” he said. “No one wants to pay more in taxes. We were trying to be as fiscally responsible as we could, really making due with what we had, with the best programs we had.”
Officials have said annual losses of state and federal revenues and reimbursements totaling about $2.3 million and rising costs for Medicaid waivers and transportation made the November levy essential. The board had tried to reduce spending in other ways, eliminating 49 positions through attrition since 2004, and changing salary and benefit schedules for new hires, saving $26 million.
Happy Hearts currently serves a total of 79 children, including 34 at satellite sites the DD Board funds at Geneva, Ashtabula, Grand Valley and Pymatuning Valley, and 45 physically on site at the Kingsville building.
Reynolds said of the $6 million in property tax revenue the DD Board’s levies generate, Happy Hearts receives about $2.9 million, not including transportation costs. All money is deposited into the board’s general fund to cover all services provided, which in addition to Happy Hearts includes: early intervention; adult services/Medicaid waiver
match; community support services, transportation; investigative support services; and administration.
Transportation becomes a big expense because the DD Board, not the home school districts, are responsible for transporting all the students to the satellite sites and the Kingsville building, Misiak said.
There was some questions raised by the public about collecting property tax money in the future, as past levies specifically referenced Happy Hearts and AshCraft, which is likely going to be privatized in the near future. Reynolds said all levy funding goes into the general fund and closing Happy Hearts would not affect the collection.
In addition, Rubesich said the Ohio Department of Education provides $1 million in direct funding earmarked for Happy Hearts and that is a revenue source for students Rubesich said he doesn’t want the county to lose.
“Are we in a position to say we don’t need that money from the state, I don’t think so,” he said.
Communication and consequences
While Rubesich said he is anxious to work with the DD Board and find the best solution for the Happy Hearts students, he said there was a lack of communication between the DD Board and the school districts, so the closure “floored” area superintendents.
“It kind of blindsided everyone,” he said.
While the DD Board’s campaign literature said there would be a “significant impact” on services if the levy failed, it never publicly indicated Happy Hearts would have to close.
“We had no intentions of having to cut anything. The failure of the levy was unexpected and it caught us off guard,” Zeitler said, blaming the failure in part on a wave of anti-tax feelings in the county.
In addition, Zeitler said the board wouldn’t have known Happy Hearts would have to close even if the levy failed, referencing the failed union negotiation that would have allowed the school to stay open another year and given the DD Board a chance to put the levy back on the 2018 ballot before running out of money to operate the school.
“Something could have happened that maybe we wouldn’t have (needed to close the school). The unknown is the unknown,” she said. “We had to review all our options. I don’t think it would have been fair to say that.”
Misiak admitted that, in hindsight, the public could have been better informed about the potential consequences of the levy failing.
“It probably would have been beneficial to spell everything out completely, maybe we put that under too much of an umbrella,” he said, adding, “If we would have spelled it out a little more it could have helped. It’s such a punch in the gut to see the headline ‘Happy Hearts to close.’ We’re talking about a very vulnerable population. ... It’s a tough pill to swallow.”
However, announcing the closure now was important for several reasons, Misiak said. The first is the board will simply run out of money to keep the school open. Second, layoff notices with the union need to be sent out now. Third, if something can be worked out with another entity, such as the Educational Service Center, making people aware of the situation now rather than the spring or summer allows more time for discussions.
“We had to give union layoff notices at a certain time, and we’re starting that process now, and then there’s the time aspect of it. We wanted to let the schools know and we want to give them enough time to prepare. Nine months, is that enough time? That’s the most time we could give.”
More than 30 teachers and other staff will be laid off at the end of the school year in June and will be receiving their notices in January. A yet to be determined number of physical therapists, LPNs and nurse assistants will also be laid off.
While many people were caught off guard, Rubesich agreed having more time to look at alternatives is important.
“In one sense it’s good that this has come out now, rather than June or July, then we’d really be scurrying,” he said. “The Founding Fathers of Happy Hearts knew there was a definite need. … Let’s have some discussion about putting some ideas and thoughts together, and can we as a county school system come up with other alternatives for those children? And I think we can.”
Gene Moroski was one of Happy Hearts’ co-founders and said Friday the closure was upsetting. It was personal for him, as he fought for two years back in the 1950s to get the school started, because there was no place at the time to support his son with Down syndrome.
“My biggest reaction, that’s one of the saddest headlines I’ve ever seen in your paper. It affected me hard,” he said.