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Board approves school cuts

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At the Yellow Springs school board meeting Thursday, March 10, five Yellow Springs High School students spoke in support of their orchestra teacher, whose position was one of many slated to be cut that night and the only one in the district to be eliminated through nonrenewal of a contract. About 10 more students came in support of those who spoke.

But without much discussion from board members or the 20 community members in attendance, the board approved $437,000 of cuts to the 2011–12 budget, including the orchestra position. Board President Sean Creighton, Vice president Benji Maruyama, and members Aïda Merhemic and Richard Lapedes voted to approve the cuts. Board member Angela Wright was absent.

The budget cuts were proposed by Superintendent Mario Basora and were made public on the district’s Web site one week prior to the vote. The recommendations followed over three months of public forums and private meetings with members of both the school and village communities. The action was necessary to stem the district’s deficit spending and put off a negative cash balance that was forecasted for the middle of the 2013–14 school year, Basora and board members said at the meeting.

But the recent cuts will not be adequate to balance the budget for future years, Basora said. With actual deficit spending forecasted to reach about $800,000 this year, according to Treasurer Dawn Weller after the meeting, and next year’s deficit expected to reach about $600,000, Basora urged the consideration of another $700,000 in cuts before the end of this calendar year. The risk of not doing so would be some level of oversight or takeover by the state, he said.

“This is hard for everyone, it’s hard for teachers, students, the community, and the board, but we have to reduce our budget to ensure continued local control of our schools,” Basora said.

“This is serious and somehow needs to be communicated to the community of Yellow Springs,” board member Richard Lapedes said at the meeting. “I’m hoarse from trying.”

Technically the Yellow Springs district falls under one of three of the Ohio Department of Education’s designations for fiscal concern, according to definitions from ODE spokesperson Patrick Gallaway. The first is “fiscal caution,” when a district’s deficit is greater than 2 percent of the previous year’s general revenue. For Yellow Springs, 2 percent of 2009–10 revenue is $143,000. The second is fiscal watch, when the deficit is higher than 8 percent of the prior year’s revenue, which for Yellow Springs is $572,000. The third and most serious level is fiscal emergency, when the deficit grows to over 15 percent of the prior year’s revenue, which is almost $1.1 million for Yellow Springs.

The level of control the state can exert over the local district increases with its designated level of fiscal crisis. Currently Yellow Springs’ deficit spending would put the district in “fiscal watch.” Perhaps due to the district’s estimated $2.7 million cash surplus, according to Weller, the district has not received official notice of its status from the state auditor. However, with the projected cash spend-down that would put the district in the red in a little over two years, school leaders are concerned that the state could officially designate fiscal watch and impose its right to approve the district’s budget with a financial recovery plan.

Since last summer, the local schools have cut a total of $675,000 from the budget, largely due to declining revenues caused by the recession. Though the district’s cash carryover will plug the leak for perhaps the next two years, the school’s five-year forecast shows the district will begin a negative cash balance at the end of the 2013–14 school year unless additional cuts are made.

But according to students Zyna Bakari, Lydia Jewett and Anne Weigand who spoke at the meeting, instead of making cuts that would hurt the arts program and ultimately the students, the district should ask the community to pass another levy. Their orchestra teacher, Dr. Eric Aho, has not only greatly improved an orchestra program that was struggling but also provided a safe space where students felt valued, listened to and inspired to work hard to get positive results, they said.

But the evening’s budget discussion was focused on how to deal with the bigger financial picture. Board President Sean Creighton encouraged the whole community to participate this spring in the 2020 strategic planning initiative, whose mission is to bring local stakeholders together to plan a more contemporary and cost-effective way forward for the district.

In other school board business:

• The board approved the nonrenewal of a contract with Julie Speelman, who served as McKinney/YSHS athletic director/dean of students. Speelman’s contract expires at the end of the current school year.

• The board reluctantly accepted the retirement of teacher Becky Brunsman, who has taught at Mills Lawn School for 42 years. Brunsman has served as both the music teacher and later as the kindergarten teacher, and also directed and choreographed nearly every school concert and musical production that the school has performed over the past four decades.

• The board met in executive session for one hour prior to the public session of the meeting to talk about the personnel issues and preparations for bargaining sessions with employees.

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