Defeat of roads levy in Liberty serves notice to school district

Liberty Township residents, by a vote of 1,255 to 983, turned down a request from government for a 1.25-mill, five-year levy that would have pumped $226,320 into the road resurfacing fund. Township officials had pointed out there are 20 to 25 roads that are in really bad shape, but taxpayers weren’t swayed. The arguments presented by township Administrator Patrick Ungaro and the trustees that the local money would generate state grants failed to win over a majority of the voters in the Nov. 5 general election.

Against that backdrop, members of the Liberty Local School District and the state-mandated fiscal commission overseeing the system’s finances have their work cut out for them if the decision is made to seek an operating levy of up to 5 mills.

Thirteen days before the general election, Paul Marshall, commission chairman, said the projected deficits in the five-year budget forecast left the board of education with two options: cut spending or raise revenue.

“You don’t want to wait until the last minute,” Marshall, who has worked with other financially challenged public entities in the Valley, told the school board. His message was to the point: “ … we need to do something now.”

Why the urgency? Because the five-year forecast, which is required as a result of the district being under state-mandated fiscal emergency since 2011, projects an $800,000 deficit in 2017 and $1.3 million in 2018.

Marshall acknowledged that selling a levy to the residents of the district would be an uphill battle, but he pointed out that given the challenges the school system is facing, it will be difficult to make substantial cuts in the operating budget.

The district has already cut staff and transportation and is sharing services with the Trumbull County Educational Services Center.

There is a bright spot in an otherwise bleak picture: The new three-year contract with the school district’s staff includes: a 10 percent contribution to health benefits; a move from self-insurance to coverage under a health-care consortium; and most important, no pay raises.

But, here’s the question: Will the willingness of the employees to make sacrifices persuade an otherwise cynical electorate (as evidenced by the November vote) to approve a 5-mill operating levy for the schools?

Leading role

We would suggest that the fiscal oversight commission will have to step forward and take a leading role in making the argument for the tax. The rejection of the roads levy earlier this month is not encouraging, but having a state-mandated panel that has been overseeing the district’s finances involved in the campaign may get through to the voters.

There is an argument to be made for the district needing more money to operate, but how that argument is presented — and by whom — could be the difference between a yes vote and a no vote.

If the school board and the fiscal commission are looking for a silver lining in the Nov. 5 voting, they may want to focus on the outcome of the trustees race.

Two incumbents, Stan Nudell and Jason Rubin, easily won re-election — despite their strong support for the roads department issue. Indeed, each of them got more votes than the vote total by which the levy was rejected.

What does that mean? It’s up to members of the commission and the board of education to find out. The answer could serve as the foundation for the levy campaign next year.

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