ALBANY — The Alexander Local School District's newest attempt to pass an operating levy fell short once again in the Tuesday primary election by a 51 to 49 percent margin.
The margin tightened considerably compared to three previous levy attempts, and district officials have not ruled out trying for a fifth time.
The final margin, which is not yet official and does not include provisional ballots, was 1,455 votes in favor of the levy and 1,515 votes against it — a difference of 60 votes.
Six of Alexander's eight precincts are in Athens County, where the margin was 1,259 in favor and 1,301 against; one precinct is in Meigs County, where the vote was 188 votes in favor and 205 against; and one precinct is in Vinton County, with eight votes in favor of the levy and nine against.
There are still 68 provisional ballots to be counted in Athens County, and 52 in Meigs County, with a handful anticipated in Vinton County. But not all of those provisional ballots were cast in the Alexander Local School District coverage area. It appears unlikely the provisional ballots will change the outcome.
Provisional ballots in Athens County will not be counted until next week, according to an official from the Athens County Board of Elections. All results are scheduled to be certified in Athens County on May 25.
Should the margin hold, Alexander is now faced with making some initial budget cuts that may be considered as early as the May 21 regular board meeting. Already under discussion are reduced bus routes and a $40 per student classroom fee — so-called “smaller cuts” that would precede more drastic measures that could be taken about a year from now when contracts for teachers and non-certified personnel are up for renewal.
Alexander Supt. Lindy Douglas noted late Tuesday that despite the levy's fourth consecutive defeat, the margin was much closer this time. The levy on Tuesday's ballot was a 1 percent traditional income tax. The previous three levy attempts were all earned-income levy proposals — one at 1.5 percent, and two more at 1.25 percent on successive ballots. Those three failed by a cumulative total of about 60 percent to 40 percent.
"We have momentum on our side now," said Douglas, who praised the efforts of the Say YES to Alexander Committee and its volunteers led by Chris Chmiel.
Douglas also said she believes that if the margin holds as is, the Board of Education should pursue another 1 percent traditional income tax levy in November. District voters are more aware than ever now of how the district's flat state funding since 2009 requires either levy passage or cuts that will begin to run deep in the near future. The district has already cut more than 30 positions, including nearly 20 teaching positions, over the past decade.
School board members had expressed renewed hope earlier on Tuesday for the levy, which would have generated just over $2.1 million annually for district operations. Supporters believed the levy had a fair-to-good chance at passage. They attributed its prospects to the efforts of the Say YES To Alexander Committee, led by Chmiel, a district resident and an Athens County Commissioner, and his group of approximately 40 volunteers.
“I’m feeling optimistic about this levy only because in years past, I knew that the levies proposed were almost certainly going to fail,” school board member Jay Barnes said Tuesday afternoon. “It’s a toss-up in my opinion.”
A toss-up it was, with ground from previous levy defeats made up by grassroots effort involving Alexander community members. Say YES Committee volunteers went door-to-door throughout Alexander’s eight precincts over the past few months. Chmiel said volunteers received homeowner permissions to place more than 700 yard signs that read “Vote Yes! Spartan Pride.”
“This time, there has been a much better effort at going door-to-door to try and get the information out,” Barnes agreed.
Committee members distributed campaign literature at every stop, and took the opportunity to record those who were positive, negative and neutral toward the levy — so that those who were neutral could be approached again later for levy support.
Chmiel, who said last week that he was “cautiously optimistic” about levy passage, also noted that the committee’s Facebook page included access to a more than 3-minute long video, featuring comments from Alexander Schools students, faculty and alumni — asking for voter support. It is difficult to turn down real faces of those who have received an excellent Alexander education in the past, he argued. He added that today's Alexander students and their parents want the same excellence to continue, which will happen through levy passage to fund teacher, staff and program costs that continue to rise for every Ohio school district.
Alexander has not received any new operating revenue from district voters since 1991. Barnes said it is time for school board members to discuss cuts, likely starting at the May 21 meeting.
Some items already discussed include an end to busing within a 2-mile radius of the schools complex; a classroom fee of $40 per student that would exempt those on free-and-reduced lunches; and a freeze on curriculum spending. Those items are not a definitive list and are only under consideration, Barnes said. Some of those items could be dropped, and new proposals added depending on the board’s wishes.
Had the 1 percent traditional income tax levy passed, it would have taken at last two years for revenue to start flowing into the district, Barnes noted.
School Board Vice President John Hutchison said Alexander schools must begin to look at cuts soon. He said he did not know if another levy would be attempted this November, but said, while commending the efforts of the Say YES committee, that “at some point, we will have to pass a levy. We have no choice.”
The school board could decide to hold off on any cuts for about a year and wait until teacher and non-certified contracts to expire. Discussions would turn to salary freezes and staff cuts, district officials have said. The district’s state funding has flat-lined since 2009 but expenses have risen considerably since then, including medical insurance costs for employees, district Treasurer Aaron Schirm has said.
“But if you wait a whole year, it would kind of be like falling off a cliff when the cuts have to be made,” said Hutchison, a former long-time high school math teacher.
Hutchison also said that with 32 staff positions having been cut in the past decade, including 18 teaching positions to a district savings of $10 million,
“We have cut our teaching staff too deeply in my opinion already,” Hutchison said.
The number of study halls has increased because of teaching cuts, and teachers have been asked to teach during their classroom planning periods, both undesirable for a district attempting to educate approximately 1,600 students, he said.