By Gabriel Brison-Trezise
Asking people for more money is not an easy thing to do, Superintendent of the Mount Vernon City Schools Steve Short said. Speaking in front of a full house in a multi-purpose room at Dan Emmett Elementary School on Monday, Short urged those gathered to support a proposed new operating levy, which, if passed, would raise around $2.5 million each year for the next five years. Hes right: Voters have not increased operating funding to Mount Vernon schools in 16 years. Consequent budget deficits, coupled with an eight-percent reduction in state funding since 2008, have forced the district to eliminate high school busing, increase participation fees for extra-curricular activities and cut dozens of teaching and administrative positions.
We need new operating money, and we need the community to support it in order to preserve quality schools, maintain a sound financial management in our schools and protect our community, said the Levy Chair of the Committee to Support Our Local Schools, Mo Helser. In addition to Mondays community forum, the Committee has distributed orange-and-black We [Heart] Mount Vernon Schools yard signs in an effort to garner support for the levy.
This is the third time in as many years that the district has sought a new operating levy. The current proposed levy is based on property value: for each $100,000 worth of property, a landowner would have to pay about $150 extra annually. The last two attempts to pass a new operating levy failed, the first by 30 percent and the second by eight percent of votes. Helser, however, is optimistic that this levy will pass. I think the school board and the superintendent have responded to the last two nos and theyve made the cuts people have asked them to make, Helser said. Weve been able to spread the word, educate better and focus on doing the door-to-door and the phone calls, so Im very optimistic.
Short warned that, if the levy does not pass, the District might have no choice but to cut more programs and positions, and to increase class sizes. Music and physical education at elementary schools, including Gambiers Wiggin Street Elementary. Do I want to do that? No. Is that going to be one of our choices? Yes, he said.
The Knox County Democratic Party supports passing the upcoming levy, while the Knox County Republican Party, according to Chairman Chip McConville, does not take positions on local tax levies.
Gambier has traditionally voted strongly in favor of proposed Mount Vernon school levies. Last May, 94 percent of village voters cast their ballots in favor of a new operating levy. That widespread support may be due in part to work by the Kenyon Democrats. [The Kenyon Democrats] have worked with the school levy committee for a few years. Weve done phone-banking, weve gone to their organizational meetings and given our input, weve done some canvassing for them,
Sarah Marnell 13, president of the group, said. We cant have a strong community without good schools. We want our professors to have their children have the best opportunities afforded to them.
I think its more a fear of what will happen if the levy does not pass, Assistant Professor of Political Science Michelle Mood said. Mood has two children, both with special needs, in the Mount Vernon City Schools. The restoration of whats been cut is one thing. The question is what will be cut if it doesnt pass and, frankly, I think my husband and I would have to move, and I would quit my job, because, with two children, I can move to a county where Id get $40,000 in respite care, she said.
Knox County currently offers Mood only $1,800 in annual respite care for her children. Mood also expressed doubt that the District would remain able to accommodate her children, especially her younger one, a first-grader who requires a full-time aide, if the levy does not pass. Why would they give my child an aide when they cant even give music to any child if the levy fails? she said.
While Short recognized the damages caused by recent cuts, he also highlighted the high quality of Mount Vernons schools. All of our elementary schools are excellent or excellent with distinction, he said. Our performance index is the highest its ever been. Our ACT scores are the highest theyve ever been.
Short also pointed out that last year the district met more of the Ohio Department of Educations proficiency indicators than ever before.
My fear, Short said, is as we move forward and things become more severe, can we maintain the quality that were bringing with fewer people and fewer opportunities?
Helser said failure to pass the levy would drastically affect the quality of education. Of course that trickles down to the community, she said. Its going to be harder to draw new businesses, good professors at the colleges.
According to Mood, failure to pass the levy may also prompt some professors to move out of Knox County, if not leave the College altogether. She said, Anytime you have a residential college where the faculty is an hours drive away, its a very different experience. Mood concluded that further slippage in the quality of Mount Vernon schools will ultimately deeply change Kenyon College and the Kenyon College student experience.
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