TRUMBULL COUNTY School systems' fate up to voters

Three districts are seeking additional funding and one seeks a renewal levy.
WARREN -- Four Trumbull County school districts are pinning their hopes for financial stability on voters' response to Tuesday's special election.
Three of them seek additional dollars: Niles City and Bristol Local schools face state fiscal emergency -- Bristol is making its sixth attempt to win voter approval. Brookfield has failed three times to pass an additional levy.
Bloomfield-Mespo seeks a renewal levy.
Precincts will be open from 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. in these school districts.
Fifty precincts will be open in Trumbull County, and the schools having special elections will be charged $550 to $600 per precinct for the special election.
There are some advantages to schools having a special election, even if they do not succeed. They can come back in the spring primary and fall general election. They can't try more than three times in a year.
"It gives them another opportunity to try to get it passed," explained Kelly Pallante, Trumbull County Board of Elections director.
Also, special elections generally aim for a target audience: Those people who are likely to come out just to support an issue.
Niles seeks an additional 4.8-mill emergency levy, for five years, to generate $1.3 million annually. The levy is part of a recovery plan requested by the Ohio Department of Education that shows how the schools will avoid the anticipated $999,000 deficit at the end of the 2004-05 school year.
"If they want to maintain the present status quo in the Niles City School District, pass the levy," schools Superintendent Rocco Adduci advised voters. "If it really doesn't matter to them, vote no, we'll be in fiscal emergency and everything changes."
The district's deficit is expected to be as much as $8.74 million by the end of 2007-08. "It just continues to progress because you have to keep on borrowing," Adduci explained. Under fiscal emergency, the district can borrow money from a state solvency assistance fund to address its cash flow problem -- but it has to be paid back. "All it is, is borrowing on future income for present debt, which is not good," he said.
Adduci said the district lost more than $600,000 in state funding last year because of pupils opting for open enrollment at other school districts. It also had to borrow $800,000 in July and $70,000 in December to cover payroll expenses, he said.
The district has already made staff reductions, which have saved $1.2 million through attrition of 13 employees; changed health-care benefit packages and eliminated the purchase of new textbooks and preventive maintenance on school buildings.
Instructional fees have also been increased, overtime has been reduced and one elementary building was closed.
The district's levy committee has been busy this winter addressing members of the community at five forums. Based on an appraised value of a $100,000 home, the net cost per year from the tax increase would be $147.
Bristol is asking for an additional 5.5-mill levy, for five years, to provide $400,000 annually to meet the district's emergency requirements. The district last passed a levy in August 1991; it continues to generate $330,000 annually. That levy will be up for renewal next May.
The district's future is at stake, school Superintendent Marty Santillo said. "I think it's crucial for the community, if they want to maintain a school in their community," he said.
The state declared a fiscal emergency status for the district, citing a projected deficit. The state auditor's office has forecast a $718,000 deficit by the end of the fiscal year. If the state determines the district can't pay off its loans, it could be dissolved and reconfigured into neighboring school districts -- if they're willing to take on the district's debt plus a population unwilling to support a school levy. Neighboring districts are Champion, Maplewood, Southington and Bloomfield-Mespo.
The Farmington school district merged with Bristol in 1988. Past levy attempts succeeded in the three Bristol precincts but lost in the two Farmington Township precincts.
Already the district is repaying $995,000 it has borrowed from a state solvency assistance fund. Its teachers and classified staff have accepted a wage freeze for the 2005-06 school year, the second such freeze in as many years.
Even if the levy passes, Santillo said there will still be staffing cuts to address the loss last year of 98 students to the Amish school, open enrollment or moving from the district -- a $475,000 hit.
"It's time to start racing to the top, instead of racing to the bottom," Santillo said.
Brookfield wants voter approval for an additional 7-mill levy, for a continuing period of time, to generate an estimated $900,000 annually.
Rhonda Baker, treasurer, explained almost $900,000 in cuts were made last year and it would be impossible to cut that same amount this year. The school board cut certified employees by 15, lost two principals, and eliminated 7.5 classified positions. There's now one principal for two elementary schools, and an assistant principal covering duties at the high school and middle school, along with the head principals there.
"This community has only passed two levies since 1984, which is embarrassing," said Gwen Martino, levy committee chairwoman. To counter organized opposition, the committee has sent 1,000 post cards to residents, and students have contacted 80 percent of the parents registered to vote, she said.
Superintendent Joseph White's contract expires in June and the board is searching for a superintendent. White has 41 years in the system and former students, now voting as adults, sometimes unfairly blame him for the district's problems, Martino said. A billboard in town asks these voters, "What's your excuse now?" for not passing a levy.
"If it doesn't pass, they're going to cut busing and the cafeteria," Martino explained. The school buildings are well-maintained but need repair; the middle school has experienced flooding.
Bloomfield-Mespo says it needs renewal of a 4.2-mill levy, for five years, to raise $170,000 a year. Schools Superintendent Frank DiPiero explained the original levy was for 5 mills, but population growth -- greater valuation, more taxpayers -- reduced the millage to 4.2. The average taxpayer will see a decrease of $17 a year, he said.
This money has in the past paid for textbook replacement, elementary baseball field and playground equipment, high school and elementary computers, bus replacement and the addition of varsity and junior varsity girls' sports, he explained.
On the horizon are more textbooks, a filter system for well water, and building repairs. "Our buildings are 80 years old. We have a lot of maintenance problems," DiPiero said.

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