The Herald, Sharon, Pa.

May 5, 2013

Fiscal fate looms

4.85-mill school levy on ballot

By Sandy Scarmack
Herald Staff Writer

BROOKFIELD — Come Tuesday, it will be up to Brookfield voters to decide what kind of school district they want, based on whether they are willing to pay a bit more in taxes to keep the district afloat and out of state control.

Superintendent Tim Saxton, along with school directors and a levy committee, have been working to spread the word about exactly why the district is in the financial position it is, and all are hoping voters are willing to throw their support behind the children in the district. It has been 18 years since an operational levy was passed in Brookfield.

Facing a growing deficit of nearly $1.1 million, the district has been under a fiscal watch by the state Department of Education since 2005.  Operating costs have been slashed by $500,000 by laying off teachers, cutting electives and reducing supplies, but not those changes aren’t enough to keep the district out of financial trouble, Saxton said.

The district is asking for a 4.85-mill property levy on Tuesday’s primary election ballot, and Saxton said if only the parents of students in the district voted yes, it would likely be enough to pass. Still, he said, he’d like everyone to consider what kind of school district the community wants. “The quality of the school district is something that affects everyone in the community,” he said.

Supporters have posted signs, created an online Facebook presence, made telephone calls, gone door-to-door and even hosted a free informational pancake breakfast, but Saxton said he doesn’t have a sense of which way the vote will go.

“I’ve talked to people who will support it, I’ve answered calls from those who have questions and I have heard from some who absolutely won’t go for it. We’ll see on Tuesday,” he said.

The tax increase amounts to about $8 a month for those residents whose homes are valued at $65,000. “And that’s the average value of a home in Brookfield,” he said. For those whose homes are worth more, in the $150,000 range, it amounts to about $20 a month.

If the levy passes, it will generate $606,000 a year for the district, money that will be used to restore staffing and allow the district to offer electives and advanced classes that keep it competitive with other districts. School directors and Saxton have all said they are concerned that if Brookfield schools can’t offer what the students need, there may be an exodus of students to other districts. Right now, the district has an enrollment of about 1,200.

Saxton blames the financial crisis on a steady stream of cuts in state funding, along with a loss of money to the ever-growing business of charter schools. Because the money “follows the student,” Saxton said,  the state funding for those who attend school online is given to the charter schools, which Saxton said do not provide the same quality as public education, nor do they share the same operating costs. Brookfield Local School District has lost several million dollars to charter schools in the last 10 years.

However, because he understands that some students need that option, he plans this summer to roll out Brookfield’s online programming, both as a way to educate local students in a way that accommodates them, while also garnering some of the state funding that is lost.

“We have to get creative. We can do both, online and brick and mortar. We’ll give them the capabilities of the Warrior Academy. Anyone who is interested in that can contact me. We are concerned with the kids’ education, and while the money is important, it isn’t the priority,” he said.

But he admits that right now, he is spending way more time focusing on the money than he’d like to. With a copy of a book called “Stretching the School Dollar” sitting in front of him, Saxton said his focus recently has had to be on finances, both in keeping the school operating and reaching out to the public for help. “That really should only be about a quarter of my responsibilities,” he said.

If the levy fails, the district will be placed in fiscal emergency, meaning that the state Department of Education will take over the financial reigns and can call for further cuts, some of which may come at a big inconvenience to parents, Saxton said. Officials could ultimately recommend consolidation with a neighboring district, he added.

Several solutions that were discussed – and ultimately rejected – by the levy committee include forcing a pay-to-play policy that would mean additional fees and costs for students participating in sports or other extracurricular activities, and the possible elimination of busing for students who live within a 2-mile radius of the campus. State officials could do both of those, and more, he said.

“Or they could do busing by grade. They may come in and say ‘OK, students in the high school have to find their own way here every morning,” he said.

An audit is under way to determine the exact amount of the district’s debt and once that is done, a special school board meeting will be held to share the information with the public. The “good” news about an emergency declaration is that it paves the way for the district to be able to borrow from a solvency fund.

“We have to pay it back, of course. And we’ll have that loan payment hanging over our head, but we can use that money to hopefully restore some of the cuts we’ve made. We’d like to get back to where we were last year, but we may consider going the technology route, too,” Saxton said.