Michael D. Clark reports
Lakota school parent Tanya Jolliffe watched with growing anxiety as the Lakota school board mulled over historically deep budget cuts in recent months.
She was there Monday evening when the latest blow was delivered to Lakota after the board approved $10.5 million in cuts for next school year.
Lakota’s 18,000 students have already seen more than $25 million in previous personnel and program cuts in recent years, including dozens of teacher layoffs and elimination of busing for thousands of students this school year.
In August, Ohio’s seventh-largest school system – and the state’s biggest academically top-rated district – will be further whittled by another 141 school jobs lost, shorter school days and less time for arts, music and physical education, among other takeaways.
Toss in three school tax levy defeats in the last two years – six of seven ballot loses since 2004 – and Jolliffe and other Lakota parents wonder if they are watching a slow-motion car wreck for a once-proud school system.
“I’m worried about Lakota’s future and our community’s future,” says Joliffe from her West Chester Township home.
“I’ve been to all five school board meetings about these cuts and my heart breaks for the kids. A strong school system is the basis for a strong community but we have a lot of lessons to learn and we’re not learning them fast enough,” she says.
Fellow Lakota school parent Lisa Babcock decided last year to send some of her children to private schools due to previous budget cuts.
Now she is pondering the future of her other two children.
“I have the private school application at home now. I know things are going to get worse,” Babcock says. “The mood in the school community is frustration.”
Lakota’s annual operating budget is $154 million but the district faces a projected budget shortfall of $14.1 million in 2015.
District officials are considering going to voters later this year with another school tax hike.
School parent Amy Levin echoed other parents’ concerns.
“We have had a wonderful experience and amazing teachers, administrators and support staff but these cuts really hurt. We are losing valuable teachers, staff members and services that have given my children an unforgettable school experience and made Lakota one of the greatest districts in Ohio,” Levin says.
“The thing that is most upsetting is that our community knew that cuts were coming if the levy didn’t pass. Lakota tried to inform the voters about the potential impacts…and now they are here.”
Some board members teared up Monday night while explaining their votes for the cuts. Even longtime anti-school tax activist Graeme George, who attended the meeting, acknowledged the public pain to many Lakota families and residents.
“It was a brutal exercise and the board was obviously unhappy about having to make so many cuts in so many areas and to the degree necessary to accomplish their goal,” George says.
But he reiterated a call of school tax opponents for Lakota’s 1,100 teachers to take pay cuts rather than pay freezes they agreed to in a renegotiated contract re-opened last year.
“It is my opinion that none of the cuts and reductions will be necessary if teacher and employee compensation is sufficiently reduced,” George says.
Both George and Lakota Superintendent Karen Mantia agreed that the ultimate root of public schools’ financial problems lies with Ohio’s Legislature and its decades-long unwillingness to fundamentally change school financing largely based on local property taxes.
“It’s not just Lakota, but all Ohio schools,” Mantia says. “It’s a system that is broken and I would suggest that people who oppose that system drive to Columbus.”