COLUMBIA – The night was not supposed to be about budget cuts and election ballots.
In the field behind Columbia Middle School on Thursday night, a bonfire was warming a circle of parents and students while music blared from speakers and student athletes paraded across a stage for their parents to cheer.
For one night, school leaders didn’t want to harp on how much the district needs the money the 5.5-mill levy on the Nov. 5 ballot would bring in or how the roughly 1,000-student district already has endured more than $3 million in cuts in the past four years.
But as Superintendent Graig Bansek made his way through the crowd of parents clad in the green and white colors of Columbia, he couldn’t help but to talk about the levy.
He was not the only one.
“We have to approach this by not saying ‘I think this will pass’ or ‘I hope this will pass,’ but we have to know it’s going to pass because we are going to come together and do what this community needs,” said Jason Ward, the high school football coach. “We can do this together.”
The levy is the biggest issue facing the community, which is located in a mostly rural part of Lorain County a stone’s throw from both Grafton and Strongsville.
“I love living here because it’s not too rural and not too city,” said 46-year-old Jackie Ramsey. “I moved here because I wanted give my daughter that kind of life. You know the life of a small, close-knit community. That’s what we have in Columbia.”
But Bansek, who wears worry on his face just as much as he wears his ‘Support Columbia’ T-shirt, said he knows the community loves Columbia Schools. It’s just that passing a levy for more money is a different topic entirely.
“I don’t want to say it’s upsetting the apple cart, but asking for money around here is always a difficult process,” he said.
It was 2003 when voters in Columbia last passed a tax issue for more operating money. There have been successes at the ballot along the way – most notably the February 2011 passage of a bond issue to fund additions and renovations to ColumbiaMiddle School – but even that came about after a number of failures.
In fact, according to the Lorain County Board of Elections records, Columbia has gone on the ballot 15 times since 2003. Of that, five times have been in the hopes of getting more money to help with day-to-day operations and each time the community has rejected the issue.
“Everyone around here knows we are a district that does not like new money levies,” said school board member Blanche Nemeth. “New money levies are just a hard sell.”
Nemeth, a retired Columbia bus driver, has been attending board meetings since the 1980s and is in her first term on the board. She said she knows the community’s history just as well as anyone. But the district’s unwillingness to pass levies to fund the school baffles her.
“We have a good district – great really,” she said over the loud voices of cheerleaders being announced to the crowd. “The kids are learning, scoring well on tests and we are doing our part by making cuts.”
And, the cuts that have been made have not been pretty.
After the May levy failed — an attempt to infuse $1.6 million into the budget — the first round of cuts included three teachers, several support staff members, high school busing and extracurricular activities like freshman boys basketball, drama club, Power of the Pen at the middle school, outdoor education and the eighth grade’s annual trip to Washington, D.C.
A few months later, another $618,000 in cuts was made, and those included about 20 employees, including seven teachers and the elimination of junior varsity basketball and football cheerleading, middle school and high school track and junior varsity golf.
Columbia High School students once needed 22 credits to graduate, but a board policy change instituted before the start of school dropped the graduation requirement down to the state minimum of 20 credits. The loss of so many elective courses left school officials wondering if its seniors would find enough classes to graduate.
“We have kept the cuts away from the younger grades, but they are feeling it in the high school,” Ramsey said. “My daughter is just in the fourth grade so it hasn’t affected her much, but I don’t want it to come to that. I don’t want us to lose everything that makes us Columbia.”
Bansek said a very basic form of education will come to Columbia should the levy fail.
“We are at the point where if this levy does not pass, this district will be in dire straits,” he said. “These families won’t say it, but they’re going to leave. Without this levy, we will make cuts that will not make Columbia an attractive district.”
Megan Champagne said leaving Columbia isn’t what she wants to consider.
“This is home for me,” she said. “I’m a graduate of Columbia and my grandfather taught in this district from the 1930s to the 1970s.”
But with three children in the district, she admits putting her children’s education first would trump her long love for the community. She doesn’t want to be forced to make a choice so she is letting her support of the upcoming issue be known by chairing the Citizens for Schools Committee.
“This time it’s different. The general operating need is – we’re in such a situation that failure will mean cuts no one wants to see or will be prepared for,” she said. “I hear it all the time. Kids say ‘If this levy fails, where will I go? What will I do?’ ”
But on Thursday night, those questions were put off for just a moment, giving the Columbia Fire Department time to throw a few logs on the fire and for athletes to spend a dollar to beat on a junker car parked at the edge of the field.
“We talk a lot about this levy and I know we are all thinking of it, but for tonight let’s just cheer our students and remember why we are here,” Bansek said.