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APS trying again for levy passage

10/11/2012 - West Side Leader
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By Ariel Hakim

AKRON — Voters living in the Akron Public Schools (APS) District will see Issue No. 61, a 7.9-mill levy, on the ballot Nov. 6.

In July, the APS Board of Education approved asking voters to pass the levy for a continuing period of time to cover operating expenses.

According to Treasurer Jack Pierson, the 7.9-mill levy would generate $19.28 million per year and cost the owner of a $75,000 home (the average home value in Akron, according to Pierson) an additional $15 per month. If the issue is approved by voters, collection would begin in 2013.

In November 2011, a slight majority — 50.22 percent of voters — defeated a 5.5-mill levy for operating expenses.

APS Superintendent David James cited depreciating property values and flat to declining state and local revenue as reasons for asking for a larger levy amount this time.

The last time a levy was approved for operating expenses for the district was in 2006, according to the Summit County Board of Elections. That also was a 7.9-mill issue and narrowly passed with 51.63 percent of the total votes.

During the last fiscal year, the district has made more than $19 million in cuts, including closing three elementary schools and eliminating 84 teaching positions, said James.

Class sizes are higher this school year, but still less than 30 students for all grades except kindergarten, where the maximum is 25, he added.

Other staff positions also were affected, he added. Hours were reduced from eight to five hours per day for 38 custodians. Also, instructional support staff saw a decrease in their numbers.

Supply spending was cut and textbook purchases also were reduced, he said. METRO transit routes to schools were also trimmed, he said.

The district’s Business Advisory Council has been active in examining the district’s books, and as a result, the district has made significant changes to operations to make things more efficient, he said.

“We’ve done a lot of things on the support side to cut costs and streamline things,” James said.

The really tough decisions were on the curricular side, looking at the courses offered by the district, he added.

Middle school sports were eliminated, as were middle school foreign language offerings, except from one school where foreign language courses remain to fulfill International Baccalaureate and visual and performing arts requirements, according to James.

Despite the financial challenges, the district’s focus still is on “trying to make sure we are pushing, pulling and dragging our kids to be college and career-ready when they graduate,” he said.

A new STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) high school and the John R. Buchtel Community Learning Center (CLC) for students in seventh through 12th grades opened this school year.

Balancing bringing in new programs with declining revenue is a real difficulty, according to James. The district still will need to make at least $8 million in cuts to balance the budget, even if the levy passes, he said.

If the levy does not pass, district officials will be looking at limiting more academic programs, closing additional buildings and more staff reductions, he added.

High school sports could be impacted, he said.

“Most definitely we’ll be in fiscal emergency. The state will send a team here to look at our revenue and expenses and make recommendations,” said James.

Prior to deciding to ask for 7.9 mills this fall, the board debated amounts from 7.8 mills to 10.85 mills. One mill currently raises approximately $2.44 million, according to Pierson.

A 10.85-mill levy, which would bring in nearly $26.5 million per year, would keep the APS in the black through fiscal year 2016, Pierson said. Board members agreed, however, that it would be too high for many voters.

“We’re just asking people to support us at the ballot box in November, and we’re tying to make sure we keep quality programs and keep our students moving in the right directions,” said James.

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