September 2, 2014

Medina
Mostly cloudy
74°F

Black River superintendent: Levy must pass to stay ‘excellent’

SULLIVAN — The last time Black River voters passed a property tax levy to pump new money into education was in 1997.

It was the same year many of the students in the state-rated “excellent” high school were being born. But if voters do not pass an emergency levy May 7, Superintendent Janice Wyckoff said it will be those 16-year-old students and many more who will feel the lasting effects.

In the 16 years since voters passed a levy, Wyckoff said the district has done what it could in hard times.

“We made do. We made it work,” she said. “Until the state took money away from us, we have been able to use the money we received to educate kids to excellence.”

Making due in a district small in student numbers, but not in size — Wyckoff estimated Black River serves a 120-square-mile area that includes parts of Medina, Ashland and Lorain counties — has meant cuts and more cuts. Roughly 83 staff positions have been eliminated, parents are paying so their students can participate in sports and extracurricular activities, and high school busing has long been eliminated.

“That was a hard one for our district because the only way to get to the high school is by car or walking on the side of the road. This is more of a rural area. There are no sidewalks,” Wyckoff said.

But even with those reductions, Wyckoff said the time is now for voters to pass a levy. The district, which the state placed on fiscal caution in 2011, quickly is running out of money.

“We’re at a point where we have cut so much out of our curriculum, maintenance, food services, administration — every level — that we are limited on where we can go at this point,” she said. “If we don’t pass this one, it’s going to be brutal.’’

The consequence of another levy failure — this is the seventh time Black River has been on the ballot since 2010 — is spelled out on the district’s website.

At the start of the 2013-14 school year, there will be no money for improvements to buildings, all advanced placement and industrial arts and wood courses will be eliminated, any teacher who retires this year will not be replaced, and pay to participate will increase to $400 per casino online sport.

“We are not a big district so when you’re talking about cutting a program, you are cutting a huge part out of a child’s life,” Wyckoff said. “But we are at a point where we don’t have anywhere left to go.”

There is even talk of reducing the school day to the state minimum of 5½ hours, limiting lunch offerings and cutting physical education, art and music for elementary students and reducing it for older students.

Treasurer Connie Hange said the 8.75-mill emergency property tax levy would add $1.6 million annually to the budget for five years. It will cost the owner of a home valued at $100,000 an additional $266.44 a year.

“This is going to allow us to continue operating under our current levels,” Hange said. “It won’t allow us to add anything, but it will keep the district out of a deficit until at least 2017.”

Hange said Black River employees have done a lot to help alleviate the financial situation. Wyckoff hasn’t taken a pay raise in four years. For the last three years, all other school administrators have not taken a raise.

The teachers took pay freezes for two years, while at the same time increasing their personal health insurance premium contributions an additional 10 percent. The support staff in the district did the same, while increasing their personal health care contributions by 5 percent.

“I know there are people in our district who wonder why this happened all of a sudden, but the previous treasurer predicted we would be out of money in 2006,” Hange said. “It was 2010 before we got to the point where we didn’t have anything else insignificant to cut because we were really hoping we wouldn’t have to ask our taxpayers for more money.”

Contact reporter Lisa Roberson at (440) 329-7121 or lroberson@chroniclet.com.