A short drive from Kenyon’s campus, in Howard, East Knox Local School District is housed in two large, sturdy brick buildings. Cars line the well-maintained parking lot, students play on a playground and a large stadium overlooks the school. From the outside, East Knox looks like any other school ﾗ including Mount Vernon High School, which is only 20 minutes away and the object of much attention at Kenyon due to recent tax levies used to raise funds for its flagging budget. But East Knox has budget concerns of its own. After a recent levy failed, the district is in dire fiscal straits, while students and teachers contend with diminishing resources.
“The truth of the matter is had we changed 55 people’s minds, we would have passed that levy,” Steve Larcomb, the superintendent of East Knox, said. This was the eighth time the levy had failed, with a final outcome of 52 percent “no” (1,369 votes) and 48 percent “yes” (1,261 votes).
Four years ago the district was forced to dip into its savings ﾗ around $3 million at the time ﾗ and realized it would need more tax dollars to keep pace with its financial needs.
At issue, in part, was that, every year, East Knox received less and less state funding, yet enrollment increased, creating a growing discrepancy between spending and income.
“Our expenditures were greater than the revenue we brought in,” said Derick Busenburg ’05, the athletic director and assistant principal for East Knox High and Middle School. In November of 2009, a solution was proposed: a $2.4 million levy, which would raise taxes for members of the East Knox community by an average of $300 per household and create necessary revenue for the school. But year after year, the levy did not pass.
With each failed levy, the district has been forced to make cuts just to stay afloat. “We can see we’re going to run out of savings, and so we cut back and cut back; now we’re where the rubber hits the road,” Busenburg said.
For November’s levy, a campaign committee was created and members tried to bolster support through tactics including forums, widely visible signs, sporting events and rallies. “When you’re more invested and you lose, it hurts more,” Busenburg said.
But in a district like East Knox, there are a range of differing opinions. “There are some folks who are just not in favor of public education,” Larcomb said. Additionally, many voters are retirees who may be wary of paying for a tax that will not benefit them.
Over the past four years, the cuts have been severe. The middle school and high school were forced to combine, so now the district operates out of two schools. Art, music and physical education classes have been cut in the elementary and middle schools. High school students are still offered these courses since they need the credits to graduate.
There are no field trips or after-school clubs. Teachers haven’t gotten a raise in five years, and in the past two years alone, over half the teaching staff has retired or left the district. No physics class is offered in the high school because there isn’t a teacher available. The only true extracurriculars are interscholastic sports, which are offered on a pay-to-play basis at $250 for high-school students and $150 for middle-school students, with a $500 cap on families.
“These children are so afraid that they aren’t going to have a school; they’re aware of [the levy] and they should not even have a clue,” said Wendy Busenburg-Taylor, administrative assistant for Kenyon’s Biology Department and the mother of three children and numerous foster children who were students at East Knox schools.
The situation is dire, and with the recent levy failure, it will only get worse. “In the 2014-2015 school year we’ll be out of money,” said Larcomb. “We’ll be literally bankrupt.”
In the coming months, the state of Ohio will declare East Knox to be in a state of fiscal emergency. The state will send in representatives to evaluate the school and likely force East Knox to make additional cuts. The state will likely lend the district money, which it will have to pay back. But as the district tries to pay back its borrowed money, it will also have to payregular bills, creating a snowball effect.
For now, East Knox continues to function as normally as possible while it awaits the state’s decision. “The day-to-day operations are still happening,” Larcomb said. “We’re just worried about the future.”
That future may include another levy, but as East Knox continues to generate more debt, the levies will only become more expensive. If a levy goes to ballot in May, it will likely be for $2.9 million. “The school will have a skeletal existence [if the levy in May doesn’t pass],” Larcomb said. “It will probably take a generation to recover from that.”