Niles voters asked to pass emergency school levy
By Jordan Cohen
For the second time in six months, Niles City School District voters will decide the fate of an emergency school levy in the May 8 primary election.
The district, in state-declared fiscal caution since last October, has asked voters to approve a 5.85-mill 10-year levy that would generate $1.3 million each year.
Last November, a much larger issue of 9.25 mills was rejected by 70 percent of the voters.
Had it been approved, it would have brought in $2 million, $700,000 more than what is being asked for now.
“We couldn’t go back to the voters with the same amount,” Superintendent Ann Marie Thigpen explained during a public meeting earlier this month. “This lower version will only keep us afloat.”
Niles City Schools have been in state-declared fiscal caution since last October. Under the declaration, the district retains control of its budget, but must produce a deficit-free five-year financial forecast.
While a positive balance of slightly less than $4,000 is projected at the end of the current school year, deficits are expected to skyrocket to more than $11.8 million by 2022 without additional revenue, said district Treasurer Lori Hudzik.
The district was in fiscal watch, a more serious declaration, from 2003 to 2016, and will likely face the same fate if the deficits continue Thigpen added.
Recently, a state performance audit determined the school district could save nearly $3.4 million by eliminating around 18 positions, 10 of them teachers, and renegotiating health care costs.
Last week, the board of education voted unanimously to eliminate one primary school principal position and three administrative assistant positions as of June 30.
The superintendent and treasurer estimate the savings from those cuts at $210,000 annually beginning with the 2018-19 school year.
Thigpen said the district has been hurt by state and federal funding cuts and declining enrollment. Last fall, enrollment numbered 2,250, a drop of 150 students from the previous school year.
“We also lost around $1 million more from students who enrolled in charter schools,” the superintendent said.
Thigpen said additional cuts of teachers and elementary school programs are likely if the levy is defeated. Also under consideration are fees for students participating in athletics.
As was the case in the last election, the district may be facing an uphill fight. Opposition has surfaced on social media sites and on homeowner signs.