Niles schools push for levy approval
By Jordan Cohen
The superintendent of Niles City Schools acknowledges the district faces a difficult task persuading voters to approve a 9.25-mill emergency operating levy on the Nov. 7 ballot.
One of the biggest obstacles is the amount of the millage.
“The value of the average home in Niles is $70,000, while properties in other communities are valued much higher,” said Superintendent Ann Marie Thigpen. “They can put lower millage amounts on the ballot for that reason, but we don’t have that luxury.”
The 10-year levy would generate $2 million annually. The last time voters approved additional millage was in 2005. In 2013, they rejected a 4.6-mill levy.
The financial environment for the district has been anything but favorable. Thigpen said federal and state funding have declined, as has enrollment. According to the superintendent, the latter is down to 2,250, a drop of nearly 150 from 2016.
According to Ohio Department of Education projections, Niles schools face a deficit of nearly $514,000 by the end of the current fiscal year next June and significantly larger deficits in the next few years: $2.2 million in the 2019 fiscal year and $4.6 million by fiscal year 2021.
Those projections led ODE to declare the district in fiscal caution earlier this month, requiring it to submit a deficit-free, five-year financial forecast in 60 days.
That likely would bring in the state auditor who could place the district in fiscal watch or fiscal emergency – in effect giving the state control over budgeting and expenditures. Niles schools were under the former for 13 years before the state auditor lifted the designation last year.
Another obstacle has been social media. Several Facebook sites actively encourage voter rejection. The superintendent said she does not read the postings but worries about the spread of inaccurate information.
“If you have a concern that there is wasteful spending or you question if we are fiscally responsible, you need to talk to the people who make the decisions,” she said.
Thigpen said the administration and the school board have been cutting costs. Several administrative positions have been eliminated while employee health care contributions have been increased through negotiations. She hopes she can avoid staff reductions.
“We don’t want to cut [teachers] because we need them to educate children,” she said. “Kids would be missing out on programs available to surrounding areas, and that is not where we want to be.”
According to the Niles Levy Committee, which supports the additional millage, voter approval would allow the district to keep current class sizes and staffing, help the school system increase available technology for students and update its aging school bus fleet.