Austintown schools co-chairmen struggle to educate voters on bond issue

By KALEA hall


The chairwomen for the Austintown bond issue committee say the largest issue they face in educating the public on the bond are misconceptions about it and other issues.

Co-chairwomen Lori Gavalier and Kim Smrek are heading the initiative to pass the 4.1-mill bond issue to build a new high school, of which the state has offered to cover 47 percent, or about $31 million. The total construction cost is $64 million. The committee leaders presented their concerns to the board during a work session Tuesday.

“Our biggest issue [is to get people] to vote on this issue,” Smrek said.

The new, 21st-century 285,000-square-foot building would replace the 1960s-built Fitch High. About $34 million from the more than $45 million expected to be generated by passing the bond would go toward construction of a new school. The rest would go toward the locally funded initiative to revamp the auditorium, gym, football stadium and some classrooms near the auditorium.

The 37-year bond would cost the owner of a $100,000 home about $144 per year.

In talking to district voters, the chairwomen have faced questions pertaining to open enrollment and other concerns. Open enrollment has been in place in Austintown as the result of failed operating levy attempts. The district has not received funds from an operating levy since 1996. Open enrollment was the option taken to avoid having to cut full-time positions in order to remain in the black, school officials have said.

Since its implementation during the 2009-2010 school year, the number of open enrollment students has increased. During the first year, about 200 students came into the district through open enrollment, according to Vindicator files. During the 2013-2014 school year, 670 students have come in through open enrollment. The district brings in about $5,700 per open enrollment student.

Last school year (2012-2013), 569 open enrollment students were accepted.

Although there have been concerns over capping open enrollment, Superintendent Vincent Colaluca said the district already places a cap on the number of students per class. For kindergarten through fifth grade, a 25 student-per-class cap is in place, and for sixth through 12th grade, a 27 student-per-class cap is in place. If those are reached, the classes will be closed off.

Due to the change in graduation rate calculation, open enrollment at Fitch will be limited to incoming freshmen next school year. This will not affect current open enrollment freshmen, sophomores or juniors wishing to return next year.

Also at the work session, Gavalier and Smrek expressed the need for support from the board of education as a whole on the bond issue. The board unanimously voted at a special meeting Jan. 29 to place the bond issue on the May ballot, yet one board member, Harold Porter, told the chairwomen he was not in full support of the measure. He suggested placing an overall cap on open enrollment students and eliminating student fees.

If the bond issue does not pass in May, the district has the last option of having a special election in August before the state funding goes into a lapse status.

Community gatherings for bond issue discussions have yet to be decided.

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