By Gabriel Brison-Trezise
The Mount Vernon City Schools are set to make some of their most severe cuts to date if voters again reject a proposal for a new emergency operating levy, which will be on the ballot in May 7’s special election. If passed, the levy would inject $3 million of new funding into the district annually, beginning in 2014.
Superintendent Steve Short said the cuts would include all extra- and co-curricular activities, from athletic teams to debate club, six teaching positions and three other staff positions. These proposed cuts come on the heels of increases in participation fees for sports and other activities. Lack of funding has also forced the district to eliminate high school bussing, which the Board of Education has committed to restoring if the May levy passes.
November’s proposed operating levy failed by only 201 votes, or 1.46 percent. The last three attempts to pass a new operating levy have all failed, by a slimmer margin each time. Consequently, the district has already made significant cuts to certain academic and co-curricular programs. Gambier’s Wiggin Street Elementary used to share its teachers of “specials” ﾗ art, music and physical education (PE) ﾗ with one other school; now it shares them with two others. The number of PE classes per week for Wiggin Street students has been reduced to one. “That’s pretty sad when we’re facing an obesity epidemic in the U.S.,” said Associate Professor of Anthropology Kimmarie Murphy, whose daughter and son both attend the school.
Additionally, Wiggin Street’s reading intervention specialist was let go. “We still have kids ﾅ that maybe don’t know their letters or know how to write their name and so we had somebody that was able to work with those kids, and now we don’t have that person,” said Nita Thielke, who teaches first grade at Wiggin Street.
It appears unlikely that the district will rehire any fired employees should the levy pass, although Short said that the Board of Education would discuss reducing pay-to-participate fees.
“It’s not going to be an influx of money; it’s going to be, ﾑOh good, we don’t have to cut these other things,'” said Thielke, who arrived to the district in 1997, a year after its last new operating levy was approved.
Both Murphy and Kent Woodward-Ginther ’93, who is the College’s philanthropic advisor and has two children in the district, cited lingering anger over the district’s 2008 suspension of middle school science teacher John Freshwater for advocating Christian doctrine in the classroom as a probable reason why voters have rejected each of the last three proposed operating levies.
“I don’t think it’s fair to hold the students accountable for something that I guess some families feel like could be blamed on the administration,” said Kenyon Democrats President Sarah Marnell, in reference to the Freshwater case.
The new proposed levy is for roughly $500,000 more than last fall’s and will translate to a $177 tax increase per $100,000 worth of property. For a portion of residents, this sum is worth it, especially given that extra-curricular participation fees already run $300 or more. The added tax might be especially burdensome for some, though, including the nearly 20 percent of Mount Vernon residents who live beneath the poverty line.
The Kenyon Democrats have been working to support the levy through several means. At a February fundraising event at the Village Inn, the group generated about $1,000, which the levy committee will use to purchase fliers, voter databases to aid in canvassing and other campaign tools. The Democrats are also working to register individuals to vote and plan on running shuttles to and from the Gambier Community Center, Gambier’s polling place, on election day.
“The levy co-chairs have asked us that we mainly focus our efforts [on Kenyon] because we know from the fall and from past years what works here better than they do,” Marnell said.
Murphy, Woodward-Ginther and Thielke have also been active in the pro-levy campaign, all serving on various subcommittees of the general levy committee.
Murphy said that a further decline in the quality of Mount Vernon schools would deter future faculty candidates from accepting positions at Kenyon. “We’re going to lose people. It’s inevitable. If we can’t attract the best professors ﾅ it will certainly affect the future classes at Kenyon.” She added that local businesses’ abilities to attract employees would also be hindered if the levy fails. “If we don’t have a good school, we’re not going to have a strong local economy. Businesses aren’t going to be able to find people who want to move here and live here, for those reasons,” she said.12