SCHOOL FINANCES Salem seeks areas to trim budget

Leaders hope voters will approve a 6.7-mill renewal levy in May.
SALEM -- The school board passed a general fund budget Thursday that is more than $2.3 million in the red for the fiscal year that begins in July.
Superintendent David G. Brobeck must submit possible spending reductions today to the Ohio Department of Education. The school board will vote Feb. 28 on cuts, including a proposal to close one or more schools.
Beyond that, board members said they are hoping voters agree to continue a $2.1-million property tax levy in May.
"Let's say praying," board President Marguerite Miller said after Thursday's meeting.
The board adopted the budget on a 4-0 vote, with board member Cindy Rottenborn absent. It represents a worst-case scenario, with no additional spending cuts and the assumption that the property levy will fail.
The spending plan projects general fund revenues of just less than $16 million, a 7 percent reduction from the current fiscal year. Anticipated expenditures total almost $18.3 million, a 3-percent increase from the current year.
Convincing voters
The key to balancing the budget is persuading voters to renew the 5-year tax levy. Currently 7.6 mills, it would drop to 6.7 mills to bring in the same $2.1 million annual total.
If voters reject the tax, the school system would lose half that amount -- $1.05 million -- in fiscal year 2006 and the entire amount the following year.
"It speaks for itself. It would be devastating to the school system if the levy didn't pass," said Brobeck, who has warned of a state takeover of schools.
Even if the levy does pass, the school system still would find itself with a shortfall of about $1.3 million.
Alice Gunning, district treasurer, said Brobeck is considering a number of options including:
UClosing Prospect Elementary School, Salem Middle School or both.
U Extending a hiring freeze that has been in place this school year. The system has not replaced employees who have retired or left for other reasons.
U Not renewing contracts of some nontenured teachers, another step the system took this school year to trim expenses.
"We need to save money every way we can," board member Sean Hart said. "We need to get within a budget we can maintain for more than a year at a time ... without sacrificing our product."
In addition to cuts, Hart said board members need to search for ways to make the schools more efficient. He suggested, for instance, that the school district join a consortium that pools money to buy food and supplies in bulk at lower costs.
Possible closings
The superintendent has drawn up a number of school closing options. One would involve closing the middle school and transferring the seventh- and eighth-graders to Salem High School. Another involves closing Prospect Elementary School, which has grades four through six, and realigning the remaining three elementary schools.
Hart and board member Kathy Gano said they favor closing both schools.
"I totally agree with that. We have to cut big bucks," Gano said. "It's very emotional. But lovely, old buildings don't educate kids."
Board member Elizabeth Thatcher said she agrees the district should close one school, which she added should be Prospect Elementary. But she said she opposes closing the middle school.
"I don't think we have to do that this year," she sad. "I don't want the seventh- and eighth-graders at the high school."
Thatcher said the board should not make too many far-reaching decisions while the system is in flux. With Brobeck retiring this year, she said, the board should wait until a new superintendent has a chance to review the facilities.
But Gano said Brobeck's successor will not be on the job until this summer at the earliest. She said the system could hold onto the middle school concept by putting those students on the second floor, separate from the older pupils.
"Closing one building is only half the job. We've got to close both," she said. "If we wait until the new superintendent, it's too late."
Financial troubles
The Salem school system has struggled over the past couple of years for a variety of reasons, Gunning said. She said her predecessor's revenue projections were off.
State and federal funding also have declined.
Gunning said expenses have increased, too. The system spent more on medical costs in fiscal year 2004, and had to make up the difference this year.
In addition to passing the budget, the board also voted to commit a little more than $1 million toward renovations as part of the Ohio School Facilities Commission plan.
By committing the money for improvements at Salem High School and Southeast Elementary School, the school system remains eligible for 45 percent in state matching funds for a host of projects at some future date.
The pre-approved construction and renovation projects, intended to take care of the district's building needs for the next 50 years, will cost about $46 million. Under the plan, the state will pay 45 percent of that share between 2008 and 2012.
At some point, the district would have to seek permission to borrow between $25 million and $26 million for the local share.