December 18, 2014

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Keystone sets meeting to discuss November levy

LAGRANGE — Convincing voters of the necessity of passing a 5.95-mill operating levy in November is a top priority, according to the head of the Keystone school district.

“For us, this is very critical,” Superintendent Jay Arbaugh said this week. “If we can’t get new money for the first time in 20 years, we’re looking at cutting 10 to 12 teachers by the end of the (2014-15) school year, and that is going to balloon classroom sizes and limit curriculum.

“The kids will end up paying the price for that, which is very unfortunate,” Arbaugh said.

School officials are looking to get the word out on the need for the continuing levy at a community forum 6 p.m. Aug. 11 in the Keystone High School cafeteria.

Billed as an informational meeting, the forum is open to anyone in the school district who can vote on the levy, but it is aimed primarily toward two groups.

One is made up of people who have not heard about the levy or don’t know what it is for. The other is people who have expressed interest in helping with the campaign to promote its passage.

“Those would be the people who want to hit the ground running, and set up some initial (campaign) committees,” Arbaugh said.

Failure to approve the issue in November would mean two rounds of cuts totaling $1 million to be implemented Jan. 1 and June 1, 2015, that would eliminate teachers, boost pay-to-play fees and reduce a number of support staff.

School officials opted to set millage for the operating levy at 5.95 mills in early July after a survey of nearly 500 community members found the biggest support for what Arbaugh termed a modest tax increase as opposed to deeper cuts.

The 5.95-mill issue would generate about $1.4 million a year and is the lowest sum the district can request and still produce a positive financial result, Arbaugh said.

The issue is projected to cost owners of homes valued at $100,000 about $17.35 a month in new taxes. Voters rejected an issue of the same millage in May.

The last time residents said yes to a request for new school money was 1994 when an 8-mill operating levy was approved by a close vote.

With expenses outstripping revenues by $1.5 million this year, cuts totaling $750,000 already have been made to next year’s budget that trim five teaching posts through retirements, cut freshman sports and reduce some staff to part-time positions.

One proposed cut that Arbaugh said he would especially hate to be made is the loss of a school resource officer, who is a local police officer hired to make rounds of schools to foster better relationships and understandings between police and students and to head off trouble.

“This was our first year for it, and it was vital to have that in place,” Arbaugh said. The officer’s presence in schools has already made a difference.

“For the elementary kids, he’s given parents peace of mind, and for bigger kids he’s a deterrent,” Arbaugh said. “They’re not as tempted to do something as they would otherwise.”

Contact Steve Fogarty at 329-7146 or sfogarty@chroniclet.com.