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Schools Face Levy and Funding Issues

By Marika Garland

In the midst of recent spending cuts for local schools, the upcoming Nov. 8 election will include a renewal levy for Mount Vernon school funding as part of the ballot. If passed, this levy will not add any new taxes for Mount Vernon citizens but will renew the $846,000 allocated to schools from property taxes every year since 1981. “One of my concerns is that people will not understand that a renewal levy is not an increase, because there has been a trend of not supporting increases in the tax base,” Knox County Democratic Party Chair Meg Galipault said.

Mount Vernon has voted to renew this levy every five years since it began and must continue to do so for it to remain in place. This year, however, the levy has taken on new significance. Due to the recent end of stimulus money, Mount Vernon schools have lost $2.5 million in state funding. “There have been a lot of cuts already, so we really need this funding to continue, and eventually we’re probably going to have to go back and ask for more help too,” Chair of the Committee to Support Our Local Schools Moreen Helser said.

Every year, Mount Vernon schools receive money from the levy in two halves, one in November and one in May, according to Mount Vernon City School Superintendent Stephen Short. If the City votes against the levy next week, it could appear on the ballot again in May, but schools would lose the first half of this funding. “That loss would be devastating to the school district,” Short said. “We would see the cut of personnel. We would see the cut of programs and the opportunity that maybe a building would be closed.”

In addition to lost state funding, Mount Vernon schools have also grappled with missing tax money. “Traditionally, all of our school funding from the community is from property taxes, and then there are people who don’t pay their property taxes,” Helser said.

“All of those things create this kind of perfect storm,” Galipault said. “Either we’re going to survive or we’re going to let it take the schools under.”

Even if the levy passes, several cuts will remain in place. The City has already had to cut high school busing. “Truancy is a problem anyway, and I’m sure that hasn’t helped the truancy problem,” Helser said. “I certainly have heard from many a parent, just word of mouth, that it’s a hardship on a lot of people.”

Several school employees have lost their jobs, and the teachers and administrators who remain have had to take over their duties. “You’re going to see our administrators, our principals doing more,” Short said.

“I see the added hours and stress and the hard work that people are putting in,” Helser, who works in the school system and has two children in a Mount Vernon elementary school, said. “A lot of the work is just getting divided up and added onto everybody’s current jobs.” The number of art, music and physical education teachers has been reduced as well, resulting in the cancellation of this year’s elementary school holiday music program.

High school students now must pay $200 to participate in sports, music and other extracurricular activities, an increase in the former $25 fee. “That’s hard on kids, especially if you’re in more than one activity, which a lot of them are,” Helser said.

“A lot of people are concerned that money isn’t being managed well, but … our spending is lower than it’s been in the last three years, and that’s amazing because usually there’s a 3 percent increase in spending for things like heating and things that you can’t control,” Helser said. “I think the school has done a great job in trying to compensate for that as well as all the other cuts.” Mount Vernon citizens pay a lower percentage of their income (2 percent) toward schools than 13 of the 14 surrounding school districts, according to the website the Committee to Support Our Local Schools created in support of the levy.

“There has to be some way to communicate to the community that the schools are not wasting money. They’re barely surviving on what they’ve got, and we keep punishing them,” Galipault said. “If you’re not willing to invest 2 percent of your income in your kids’ education, I think as a community we need to really come to grips with that concept.”

Helser said her committee plans to work toward increasing school funding in the future rather than sticking to the $846,000 levy.

“We will probably have to figure out some way to go back and ask for more money by next year,” she said. An emergency levy to restore some of the lost state funding appeared on the ballot last May, but citizens voted against it.

The current levy has been in effect since 1981 and has not been increased despite rising inflation. “Imagine if we all had to go back to the wages we earned in 1981. Many of us would not be able to afford our homes, let alone care for our children,” Galipault said.

Galipault and the Knox County Democratic Party actively support the levy and the addition of further school funding. “We felt we needed to step up and offer our support,” she said. “We’re talking about all of our children. They’re not Democrats or Republicans. It’s a non-partisan issue.”

“We do not take positions on school levies,” Knox County Republican Party Chair Chip McConnville said. “We have no position on the levy.”

Helser said she is confident the levy will pass. “Traditionally, this has passed, so we’re really hoping it will,” she said.

Galipault and Helser both urged Kenyon students to vote in next week’s election. “I cannot emphasize how important it is for Kenyon to vote,” Galipault said. “It is an off-year election, and people think that it really doesn’t matter, but it is hugely important. It affects Kenyon students [because] the ability of Kenyon to attract good faculty is based on the environment, and if a faculty person wants to come to Kenyon but sees that the schools are terrible, they’re going to choose someplace else.”

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