April 24, 2014

Elyria
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‘Draconian’ cuts coming to Elyria Schools

ELYRIA — Elyria Schools, coming off a devastating defeat on the November ballot, has decided not to place a levy on the May ballot.

Instead of a levy attempt, school officials plan to move forward with cuts — reducing the district’s budget by $3 million to keep from going into a deficit by 2015. Superintendent Paul Rigda will present the proposed reduction plan Feb. 13.

In the meantime, Rigda said he and Treasurer Fred Stephens are working hard to identify the cuts; reductions he said will be “draconian in nature” and “sweep across the entire district.”

“It will be hard. A million dollars can be done when you have declining enrollment. Two million dollars will leave a lot of employees stressed and overworked, but it’s doable,” he said. “But at $3 million, it is a significant reduction that is far beyond what voters say when they say ‘Tighten your belts.’ It’s a lot of notches on a belt, especially when you are coming on the heels of $3 million in cuts last year.

“I don’t know how many businesses can cut $6 million in two years and still put out the same quality products, but that is what we are being asked to do,” Rigda said.

Last year, Elyria cut $3 million from the budget by closing Spring Valley Early Childhood Center and cutting 51 positions. It was largely unfelt by most in the district.

“This time we are looking at more than that,” Rigda said. “We don’t have a school to close, so most of the money will have to be made up in staff cuts. It will be more than 51 positions.”

The district will reduce electives and courses that fall outside of the core state requirements first, but Rigda said even teachers who teach core subjects will be affected because class sizes likely will increase.

Despite the $3 million in cuts last year, the district pulled out one of its best report cards to date by meeting and exceeding 17 out of 26 indicators the state uses to gauge academic achievement, and five schools were rated as “excellent” or above.

“The success we are seeing in the classroom is a direct result of planning and putting the resources toward achievement, which is something we will continue to do,” Rigda said. “We will focus on ensuring teachers know what they are expected to teach and students know what they are expected to learn. We will do this even with the cuts because it’s what voters expect from us.”

School board members already have decided against another ballot attempt in May despite the looming cuts.

The decision was based on the outcome of the November elections and an updated voter survey conducted earlier this month by a third-party consultant, AMM Political Strategies based in Fort Worth, Texas.

District spokeswoman Amy Higgins said the survey told the district the public would not support a second attempt.

“We are not going to go against that,” she said. “And, we have levy work coming up because we have three renewals coming down the pike. So, really we have to be smart about making the cuts like we said we would and preparing for the renewals.”

AMM Political Strategies are partners of Burges & Burges Strategists of Cleveland, which often is hired by Elyria Schools to gauge public opinion on tax issues. The cost of the survey was $3,000 and was paid through the FirstEnergy funds awarded to the district a couple of months ago through FirstEnergy’s Thanks a Million program.

The 10-question survey focused on the possibility of a second levy attempt and what could be at stake without an immediate infusion of new money. It took place on Jan. 7 and 8, and 500 households of frequent voters in a cross-section of town were sampled.

The first question asked if Elyria Schools went back to the ballot, how likely it was that respondents would vote. Of those questioned, 307 people or 61 percent said they planned to vote in May. However, when asked if they would support the levy, only 228 people, or 45.3 percent, said they would likely vote in favor of the levy.

Even after questions were asked detailing potential cuts — reducing staff members, increasing class sizes, limited course offerings, cutting electives like art and music and moving to pay-to-play for sports and other extracurricular activities — the number of likely voters to vote in favor of the levy only rose to 253 people, or 50.3 percent.

“That’s just not good enough,” Rigda said. “If we can’t see 55 percent or better, that tells us we would have too much ground to make up to get to the yes vote.”

Rigda said renewals likely will be on ballots this November and in May 2014.

Contact Lisa Roberson at 329-7121 or lroberson@chroniclet.com.