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SCHOOL FINANCES Salem chief promotes tax renewal

Saturday, February 12, 2005

The superintendent said cuts would still be needed even if voters approve the measure.
SALEM -- Schools Superintendent David G. Brobeck took his campaign for a property tax renewal to the business community Friday, speaking to about 60 people at Timberlanes Inn & amp; Restaurant.
Brobeck also outlined a proposal to close Prospect Elementary and Salem Middle schools. Such a move would result in a reduction of 20 employees and cut down on utility, maintenance and medical insurance costs.
He estimated the total savings at a little more than $1.09 million a year.
"I'm not here today to promote closing schools. That is one option," Brobeck said.
The school board is set to vote on the proposal at its Feb. 28 meeting. The superintendent will lead two more roundtable discussions with the public before then.
The option under consideration calls for closing one or both of the schools. If the middle school is closed, seventh- and eighth-graders would move to the second floor of Salem High School.
Brobeck said middle school pupils would start and finish classes five minutes earlier than their high school counterparts. That would mean older and younger pupils would not be in the hallways together at the same time, he said.
Addressing concerns from some business leaders about overcrowding, Brobeck noted that the school system's pupil population has dropped from about 4,200 in 1977 to 2,391 today.
"There is enough space on that floor to have everyone in the middle school. That would become our school within a school," he said.
Closing Prospect Elementary School likely would mean reorganizing the other three elementary schools, Brobeck said. Buckeye Elementary would have grades kindergarten through second; Riley Elementary would have grades 3 and 4; and Southeast Elementary would have grades 5 and 6.
Space would be tight, Brobeck acknowledged, but he added it would have the advantage of evenly distributing pupils. Now, if some parents want to send their children to a school outside their attendance zone, the school system must allow them. That sometimes results in large class sizes in certain grades at one school and comparatively small class sizes in the same grade at another.
One man in attendance Friday asked what would become of the closed school buildings. Brobeck said the system would be obligated to rent them to groups that wanted to start public charter schools, taxpayer-funded but independently run institutions.
If that doesn't happen, the school system could sell the buildings, Brobeck said. He said someone had suggested Prospect Elementary could be converted into apartments.
Tax levy
Brobeck urged support for the 6.7-mill property levy that will appear on the May primary ballot in Salem. The tax, which generates $2.1 million a year, is a renewal of an existing levy and would not cost taxpayers additional money.
"This isn't going to solve our future. It's keeping us afloat for a while," he said.
Brobeck said a state takeover of the school system is all but certain if the tax fails. Receivership would mean that the Ohio Department of Education would send in an outside consultant to run the schools until the system dug out from the red ink.
"What it means is our schools are under the control of somebody else," he said.
Even with the tax, the Salem school system faces painful spending cuts, Brobeck said. While closing two schools would save more than a $1 million, he said administrators still have to find an additional $200,000 to $300,000 in cuts to balance the general fund.
The business leaders gathered Friday generally expressed support for the tax. One asked what the business community could do, to which Brobeck responded he plans to appoint a planning team by March 1 to lobby for the levy.
Health care costs
One businessman noted that the school system has to renegotiate labor pacts with its teachers and noncertified employees this summer. He asked if the financial outlook could grow even worse as a result.
"I think all employees are aware of the financial crisis our schools are facing," Brobeck said.
Several of the business leaders also expressed a modicum of jealousy at the school system's health benefits, which Brobeck called the best he has enjoyed in his career.
Brobeck said rising health costs have contributed to the school system's problems. School system employees pay nothing for health insurance, which costs the taxpayers $16,000 for individual workers who have family coverage.
The system busted its budget for health insurance by $430,000 last year -- money that must be paid back this year.
Jeff Stewart, an account executive with a collection company, said he hopes the school system gets employees to shoulder more of the cost for their health care.
"We're paying for it," he said after the forum. "I think they are far out of line."