Income tax levy holds key to school district

WOODSFIELD – The Switzerland of Ohio Local School District plans to ask voters to approve an income tax levy during the November election – a move expected to help prevent the district from possibly closing two schools and rearranging others.

Superintendent John Hall said if the 1-1.75 percent income tax measure fails, the Swiss Hills Career Center and Powhatan Elementary School both would close for the 2015-16 school year.

Hall said such a plan is based upon a financial projection and still must be approved by the district’s board of education.

Students from others schools would also be shuffled to different schools. For example, River Elementary has 150 students in grades K-8, and under the draft plan would also host grades 5-8, taking on 102 Powhatan students for a total of 252 students.

Other examples include:

Hall said closing Powhatan and Swiss Hills would result in saving $270,000 annually in utility bills alone. “The school district is in fiscal caution. Its finances are not in good shape. … We need a lot more than that,” Hall said.

Treasurer Lance Earlwein said income tax would be levied against people who live and work in the school district. It would not tax people’s pensions or personal property. He estimated a 1.25 percent income tax would generate about $3.76 million a year; a 1.5 percent tax, $3.68 million; and a 1.75 percent tax, $4.29 million.

“The district literally runs out of cash around January 2016 or sooner,” Earlwein said.

Hall said the draft plan will help the district financially and academically.

“We have to do drastic measures,” he said. “The income tax is the levy. If it fails, then this plan goes into effect.”

According to a copy of the draft plan, if the income tax were to pass, then at least the following would occur: the hiring of up to 10 teachers to increase curriculum offerings including art and music; all buildings will continue to be used for students; continued reduction of transportation days pending state approval; and more board financial help for academic trips and extracurricular activities.

For the 2014-15 school year, the draft plan proposes reducing by 20 the number of days students are transported via bus and possible voluntary staff reductions, but not reductions in force.

The board of education’s next regular meeting is slated for 6 p.m. Feb. 20 at Powhatan Elementary School. Board members already have been given copies of the draft plan, and some teachers have received copies as well.

“I’m glad people are talking about it. There is a sense of urgency that is not understood yet,” Hall said. “There are some clear choices that need to be made. We’re early in the discussions, but we are trying to proactive and look ahead. … We’re trying to protect the district from going into extinction. We have to find a way to divert the train from going off the fiscal cliff.”

The district recently built several new schools thanks to a bond levy and state funding. Hall said the bond money can’t be used for operating costs and must be used for construction and purchasing furniture. Hall said when he interviewed for the job of superintendent, he questioned why the district decided to construct new buildings.

“That’s the question I had when I came into interview, but we have to play the cards we are dealt. Our buildings were the worst in state,” Hall said.

Kristin Necessary-Modra, a graduate of the district, said if the proposed changes with come about, she will send her children to another district.

“Our kids finally got what they deserve – beautiful schools, up-to-date equipment – and they are going to lose it all because people don’t want to take care of their community’s future: the kids,” she said.