This May, the Alexander Local School District will attempt for the sixth time in three years to pass a tax levy to fund regular operating expenses.
Although this is the sixth attempt in recent years, the need for funding was urgent at the time of the first attempted levy, administrators say, and now it’s more urgent than ever.
In order to maintain the services and achievements that have earned Alexander statewide recognition, district administrators say they will need to increase revenue somehow, and the state is unlikely to help.
Alexander Schools Supt. Lindy Douglas said in an interview last month that the School District recently earned “independent” status from the Ohio Department of Education. Alexander had been considered a “watch” district until last year, meaning the schools in the district had been underperforming and were considered in need of support and monitoring from the state.
“We have worked very hard over the past four years to overcome academic watch and school improvement,” Douglas stated in an email last December. Over the course of that four years, Douglas confirmed last month, a lot of changes were made to improve students’ academic success.
“We really had to look at our student performance, then we looked at our curriculum and our programs,” Douglas said in the interview, explaining that the district eliminated anything that wasn’t working and implemented new programs as well. New curricula in math and language arts were implemented for grades Kindergarten through 12, she said, and “a lot of time” was spent talking to teachers to evaluate and meet their needs.
“I think one piece that really helped us gain that independent status… was looking at the whole child,” Douglas said. “…We brought the mental health and the physical health to the children.”
The concept of focusing on the “whole child” has become a national priority in education, since the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), signed into law by President Obama in 2015. As ESSA guidelines are gradually being implemented by states around the country, Alexander has become a leader for districts in Ohio when it comes to what Douglas called “wrap-around” services.
Douglas said Alexander has been working to develop and implement programs to ensure that all of the potential needs of students are being considered at school. For example, Athens County Children Services now has an office on Alexander’s campus, and case-workers are available to work with students daily. Hopewell Health Centers and Health & Recovery Services each have offices on-site, as well, providing mental-health services to students; and Holzer Family Physician Clinic (located in the new recreation center building) is also on-site to serve students as well as the community at large.
Through Holzer, the School District is also able to offer free physicals to student athletes throughout the year, which is a big help to parents who are struggling financially.
Additionally, the district has brought in a company called The Nutrition Group to help “re-vamp” the kitchen “so it’s more efficient but more students (are) eating,” Douglas said.
Even after school, the district is able to provide Kids on Campus, a grant-funded program in partnership with Ohio University that offers extra-curricular activities, tutoring services, snacks and transportation (when needed), all free-of-charge to parents and all located on Alexander’s campus.
According to district Treasurer Aaron Schirm, the entire program is funded by a 21st Century grant through the U.S. Department of Education. This is the fourth year that the district has been able to offer those services, so students can have a productive and safe environment after school.
Alexander School Board President John Hutchison said the program is a great help to parents. “You can come by and pick your child up and they’ve had a snack, they’ve had some activities, and they’ve at least got most of the homework done,” Hutchison said during the interview last month.
Douglas said she was invited by the ODE to speak about the district’s wrap-around services at the National Conference for Rural Education, held in Colorado last October.
“We have become the role model for the state of Ohio,” Douglas said, adding that she has been working with school districts throughout the region – in Pike, Ross, Scioto and Gallia counties – to help them implement similar services in their own districts.
Compared to other school districts in the region, Alexander ranked within the top five in terms of performance on test scores for the 2017-2018 school year, according to records provided by Douglas. Having just reached “Independent” status, the district will hold that designation for the next three years, she explained.
“It doesn’t mean we stop working… It means we’ve got to keep doing what we’re doing and maintain that growth,” Douglas said.
MAINTAINING THAT GROWTH will be difficult without adequate resources, which is why the district is seeking a 1 percent earned income tax levy.
“The district has not passed an operating levy since 1991,” Schirm said last month, adding that funding from the state has remained stagnant. “We’ve actually lost over $2 million in state funding” between 2009 and now, Schirm said. “... Costs continue to go up but our largest source of revenue doesn’t keep up with the inflationary increases of our costs. It’s a struggle.”
Voters have rejected three different versions of a proposed tax levy on five separate occasions since November 2016. A 1.5 percent earned-income tax levy was rejected by voters more than two years ago that November, and again in May 2017; a 1.25 percent earned-income tax levy proposed over a five-year period was rejected in November 2017; and a 1 percent traditional income-tax levy proposed this past May also was rejected by voters in Athens County, by just 54 votes, and again in November.
“We’ve looked at every aspect of the district to save money, cut back, trim,” Douglas said.
Schirm confirmed that more than 30 positions in the School District have been let go through attrition since about 2005.
Hutchison said that in his opinion, “we’ve cut a little too deep. I think we need a few of those positions back kind of desperately.”
“We suffer in the janitorial department,” Douglas said. “…It would be nice to offer the high-school students a variety of electives to prepare them for career, tech or college… Right now, with limited funds, our electives are very limited.”
In June, the Alexander Local School Board approved a list of budget cuts in an effort to mitigate the ongoing budgetary crisis, which included a curriculum freeze on textbooks for the fiscal years 2020, 2021 and 2022; a classroom supplies fee that will be charged to students (excluding those in the Free Lunch program); athletic cuts (including supplies and transportation); and the elimination of several positions; all of which were expected to reap $28,956 in savings for the district.
“We’re running out of those types of (cuts) where the kids won’t feel the impact. I mean we’re past that,” Schirm said.
He noted that the district has seen “some growth” in local tax revenues through increases in public utility and personal property taxes, which Douglas added has “saved” the district thus far.
Still, state funds are the main source of funding for the district, constituting roughly 52 percent of its total revenue in Fiscal year 2018, according to ODE District Profile Report for that year. Local tax revenue made up about 28 percent; other “non-tax” revenue was about 11 percent; and federal dollars constituted roughly 9 percent of total revenue for FY2018. That local 28 percent is about 10 percentage points below average compared to other districts in the state (according to calculations by The NEWS). Many districts generated between 50, 60 and even 70 percent of their total income for the year from local tax revenue, according to the report.
“For (state funding) to be flat-funded for 10-plus years, that’s just made it really difficult,” Schirm said.
The state school-funding formula, which has been deemed unconstitutional by the Ohio Supreme Court, is the main culprit for the flat-funding from the state.
“It’s a humongous algebra equation, basically, with a bunch of moving parts,” Schirm explained. The formula factors in student enrollment, property tax valuation “on a per-pupil basis,” and several other criteria, he said.
“For our district, it spits out a number that is over $1.5 million less than what we’re actually getting and what we’ve been getting for 10-plus years,” Schirm said. Instead of taking away those “extra” funds from the district, the state places the district on a “guarantee” to get the same level of funding. Unfortunately, that means that even though the district’s expenses have continued to increase, state funding is unlikely to follow suit.
“We could have more than 100 kids move into our district and become resident students of Alexander, and we wouldn’t get a single dollar from the state,” Schirm said.
The levy that will appear on the ballot in May “is just to keep what we have,” Douglas said.
Historically, Alexander always has struggled to pass levies, administrators say, and the outlook for school levies across the state has been grim in recent years.
“It’s a tough thing for all districts,” Douglas said.
“The last one we tried before this current effort (in 1997)... lost approximately 60 to 40,” Hutchison said. “…So the problems we’re having now are not historically new to this district… It’s hard for people to pay taxes.”
The proposed Earned Income tax levy would not apply to all forms of income. Certain forms, including capital gains, pensions and Social Security benefits, would not typically be taxed, Schirm explained.
“We want our seniors and retirees who are maybe on fixed incomes to know how this will not impact their taxes,” Schirm said.
“These test results and the success we’re having is the end result of 12 years… some cases 14 years,” Hutchison said. “It starts in preschool and kindergarten, and it builds its way up… We can’t maintain these kind of results with the current revenue; it’s not going to be possible. Our revenue has to increase.”