Oregon schools seek new levy on March ballot

Kelly J. Kaczala

        The Oregon Board of Education on Thursday, Oct. 24, passed a resolution by a vote of 4-1 to put a 4.95 mill levy on the March 17, 2020 ballot. The board must vote again in December to make it official.
        School Board President Carol Molnar, and Board Members Michael Csehi, Heather Miller and Keith Kennedy voted in favor. Board Member Jeff Ziviski was opposed.
        The board’s action authorizes the treasurer to certify a copy of the formal resolution to the Lucas County Auditor to certify the valuation and dollar amount of revenue that would be generated by the levy if approved by the voters. The board has a deadline of Dec. 18 to vote a second time to put the levy on the March 17 ballot. Until then, meetings are planned to provide information to the public on the need for the levy.
        If the levy passes next year, it would cost the owner of a $100,000 home $173 annually, according to Treasurer Jane Fruth. The tax would collect $2.78 million annually to the district and would not expire.
        The last time voters approved an operating levy in the district was on Nov. 3, 2015. The district continues to collect on that levy annually because it is permanent and will never expire.
        Over 80 percent of revenue collected from an operating levy goes towards teacher and administrator salaries.
        The district passed a 2.0 Permanent Improvement (PI) renewal levy on Nov. 7, 2017. The district must use revenue from PI levies only for maintenance of school buildings and grounds.
        Fruth said if the levy passes, it would last three to four years before another new levy is sought.
        “It’s an estimate,” she said.
Three options
        Molnar said there are three directions a board can take “when it comes time to talk about finances and the possibility of a levy on the local ballot.
        “We can cut programming and lose momentum for any improvement; attempt to maintain the status quo; or we can move forward with course offerings, opportunities and services for all students while maintaining a living and competitive wage for our employees. The vision of this board has always been the latter option,” she said. “Our normal cycle for placing a levy on the ballot has been three years because of inflation and unfunded mandates by the state and or federal government, even as they have decreased our funding. On the advice of our finance committee members, Jeff Ziviski and Michael Csehi, and the business advisory board, we have been able to maintain services for five years rather than the three without going to our citizens for an increase in our millage.”
        Csehi, chairman of the finance committee, said after talking with Fruth, it was decided to place a levy on the ballot.
        “We noticed that if we wait an additional length of time, we would be decreasing our income and some of the services we provide to our students. With that, we had some long discussions in our meetings and decided that this is probably the time to place a levy on the ballot so that we could maintain and sustain what we have. We feel the momentum that is going on now in our district is excellent. Our students, buildings, and facilities are just superb…At this point in time, we feel a levy on the ballot is necessary. We’re doing this in a positive way. We do not want to go with threats. We’re not looking to cut. We’re looking to maintain what we have. That is the direction we want to go.”
        The Oregon City Schools District, according to Superintendent Hal Gregory, has been through a financial “roller coaster” since he started his employment in the district 17 years ago.
        “Through the course of those 17 years, we’ve had a lot of challenges as a public school district that had forced us to look at levies, look at our total expenditures, evaluate the revenues - all those types of things that school districts do on a regular basis. It’s the cycle of how the public school funding model  is. No matter what community you live in, you are dealing with situations where levies or new levies are a possibility for your district.” 
        This year, the district’s revenues and expenditures cross, said Gregory.
        “That means our expenditures are higher than our revenues. That is when, if you’re being fiscally smart, and doing what you should be doing - as a board, as a superintendent and as a treasurer, you are looking at that forecast and saying, `We need to generate revenue or cut expenditures.’ It’s something we have to consider on both sides of that fence.”
        Gregory noted the difficult financial history the district has had over the years, including a long period when voters rejected operating levies before one finally passed in 2015.
        “The district was at a place where we really didn’t want to be. We’ve recovered pretty well. But we’re still a district that hasn’t moved too far off the needle from that point. We have adjusted to what our kids need. Our kids are experiencing things differently than what we did when we went to school. For example, our enrollment has dipped in our elementary schools the last three and four years. We have been able to make adjustments at the elementary level by reducing some of the core staff. What we felt the necessity to do, and based on community input, we established STEM or STEAM programs in each of our elementary schools, which are necessary, but cost money. Outside of that, we really haven’t added a whole lot of personnel costs. We’re essentially at the same point we were many years ago. But with that, the cost of running a district goes up. So we’re going to have a lot more discussion on that as we move forward. I have statistics I can share, when there’s an appropriate time.”
More discussion
        Kennedy said he wanted more discussion on the matter before the meeting in December when the board votes to put the levy on the ballot.
        He wanted to know why the agenda had changed just a few hours before the special meeting started. The previous agenda stated there would be a discussion on a possible levy. Then just a few hours before the meeting, a new agenda stated there was to be a vote on a levy.
        “My only concern about tonight was, earlier today, the meeting was strictly for discussion and we weren’t going to be voting on anything. Then a few hours ago, we received an update saying we were going to vote on it. I wanted to know a lot more information,” said Kennedy.
        “One of the reasons we chose to start the process going right now,” said Csehi, “is because with a March levy, there isn’t much time to present data to the community. “We’re not trying to blind side the community, we’re not trying to rush things. But we are dealing with a time span. And we didn’t want to wait until the summer when people are on vacation, and we didn’t want to wait until next fall with the general election going on. We felt we would have more personal time with people in our community by starting now.” 
        Ziviski said he voted no because he felt rushed and wanted more discussion.
         “I’m a little thrown off that we’re voting on this tonight. The original agenda, as Keith noted, came out as just a levy discussion. Two hours ago, it became an actual vote,” said Ziviski before the vote. “To me, we need a levy. It’s just a lot to digest in a little bit with really no information besides the five year forecast without any significant discussion on it.”
        “We don’t have to vote on this tonight,” said Gregory. “We can have another meeting. We have time before the deadline. But I would ask that each board member commit right now to having open discussions about it, together, collectively. Communication is only as good as having people communicate.”          
        If passed, the additional tax would be on the 2020 property tax duplicate, and collection would begin in 2021.


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