The Herald, Sharon, Pa.

April 5, 2013

Backers urge voters to OK levy

By Sandy Scarmack
Herald Staff Writer

BROOKFIELD — A school levy committee is hoping to convince Brookfield residents that about $8 more a month in taxes is a small price to pay to bring the school district back to where it should be in terms of staffing, curriculum and activities.

The committee is finalizing plans for a push to educate voters and drum up support before the May 7 primary election.

Organizers said they believe if they can explain the distinction between the 2007 levy that allowed the construction of the new K-12 school building and the money that’s needed to operate the school, residents may be willing to help.

At one time, there was a 1-mill operational levy in place, and it brought the district about $125,000 a year for maintenance costs. It was allowed to expire several years ago, at about the same time the new school was built, said Tim Saxton, school superintendent.

Critics of 2012’s failed income-tax levy and this year’s proposed 4.85-mill property tax levy said they were promised that maintenance costs would be reduced dramatically once students were in the new building and that the school wouldn’t need to ask taxpayers for additional money.

Saxton said he wasn’t involved with the district at the time the operational levy expired, but said not renewing it was something he would not have been in favor of. And, he said, while maintenance costs in the new building are considerably lower than they would have been if the district was still operating four, aging school buildings, the district still spends 19 percent of its budget on maintenance.

The district’s money problems, however, are the result of a loss of about $5 million in state funding and the money saved on maintenance costs is not enough to offset the $500,000 deficit. Money from that expired operating levy could have been used for transportation, technology and additions to the building, he said.

He is also concerned about the school bus fleet. The average mileage on the buses is about 150,000 miles and all are about 20 years old, he said. One of the things the state could do, in a fiscal takeover, is eliminate busing for students within a two mile radius, he said.

If the property tax levy passes, it will bring the district enough money annually to restore six teachers who have been laid off and may prevent the district from being declared a fiscal emergency, which means that ultimately the state Department of Education will call the shots with regard to school operations, rather than local school directors.

A state takeover could mean additional cuts to staff and programs, and directors fear that will lead to an exodus of students from the district or possibly a consolidation with a neighboring district.  And if that happens, it means more money will leave the district. “It’s a never-ending cycle,” he added.

Currently there are 1,117 students in the district.

A state audit in March showed that the district has about seven fewer teachers than comparable districts. Saxton and school directors would like to make use of a state solvency fund to borrow enough money to bring back those furloughed teachers and meet minimum staffing requirements.

A committee comprised of parents, school adminstrators and directors, coaches and township residents has been meeting for more than a year, and made most of the recommendations last  year that trimmed $500,000 out of the school’s budget, by laying off teachers and eliminating some programs, such as art,  home economics and languages.

The district remains in financial trouble despite those cuts, and places most of the blame on decreases in state funding and money diverted to charter schools. Saxton has gone to Columbus to meetings at the state level to protest the loss of millions to charter schools.

He said Wednesday that Brookfield is one of about 167 districts statewide that are facing fiscal emergency or have to ask voters for operational levies.

Saxton said he encourages committee members to spread the word in the community that it wasn’t “mismanagement” of the district’s finances that has led to the deficit.

Committee member Jay Bodnar, a district teacher and coach, said he thinks it will be tough to change the minds of those who are against the levy, but if enough supporters turn out, there is a chance of getting the levy passed.

A one-percent income tax levy failed in November, but 1,771 residents supported it, Saxton said. He hopes that if 1,800 residents support the property tax levy, it will pass and bring the district about $606,000 a year.

The average home in Brookfield Township is worth about $65,000, Saxton said, and the tax hike would cost homeowners about $8 a month.

He also said he is cautious of sounding as though he is “threatening” residents with harsher and more dramatic cuts to school programs, but “the reality is that once we are in fiscal emergency and the state takes over, we don’t know what they will do to balance the budget.”

“It may be that they come in and tell us to double the amount of a tax increase we’re asking for. I know of places who have had to put a 9-mill tax hike on,” he said.

Only two levies have passed in the last 24 years.

In order to promote the levy the committee has plans for:

• A pancake breakfast from 8 a.m. to 1p.m. at the school

• A door-to-door neighborhood walk on April 20 and April 27

• Posting signs and sending out flyers

• A day of automated calls to residents with information about the levy