In February, spirits were high as members of the Finance and Budget Committee looked to place a levy on either an August or November ballot for the Chagrin Falls Exempted Village School District.

The board of education committee believed their residents to be enjoying the afterglow of the Intermediate School’s reopening and a strong economy.

Now, just three months later, committee members are performing a balancing act as they grapple at what’s best for residents and what the school district needs to extend their levy cycle and to avoid “catastrophic” cuts.

While the economy is beginning to reopen across Ohio after state-mandated closures due to the COVID-19 health emergency, the damage has already been done. With the district facing almost $534,000 in cuts to their state budget, the committee explored during their May 13 meeting whether they should wait until spring to have a better understanding of the economy with higher millage, aim for a higher levy this November or stick to replacing the 3.85 mills expiring this December.

The district has already saved more than $200,000 in their budget with buildings closed for COVID-19, as well as another $300,000 due to planned savings throughout the school year. With pushing back the construction of the bus garage, the district is faced with the need to trim another $600,000 or more from their budget starting next year.

District Treasurer Ashley Brudno explained that this additional cut is $600,000 despite the governor’s cut being $534,000 because it comes out of this year’s budget. She said the district has to respond to this cut with fewer years than it actually impacts.

BOE Vice President Greg Kanzinger pointed out that while the district may identify where the $600,000 cuts could be made, they will first consider what those will actually look like before pulling the trigger.

“If we don’t feel comfortable with [what the cuts look like], there’s a potential we could raise the actual millage, too,” he said. “Just because we ask for $600,000 (in cuts), we may not do $600,000 if we think they’re too extreme. That’s a whole discussion that needs to happen still.”

Resident committee member James Guddy suggested waiting until next spring to put a levy on the ballot because it could give the district a four-year cycle with a higher levy. He added that the board should have a better understanding of the economy by then.

District Treasurer Ashley Brudno, however, said the district risks facing “catastrophic cuts” if they wait until spring to ask for the levy and it fails. She added that the district would lose a full year of collection if they passed the levy in the spring because the 3.85 mills would expire by the end of 2020 without being replaced for collection in 2021.

When salaries and benefits make up almost 80 percent of the district’s entire budget, catastrophic cuts, as she and board member Mary Kay O’Toole have explained in previous meetings, means people and programming.

Board member and committee Chairwoman Kathryn Garvey said later that she agreed that waiting until spring has its benefits with potentially having a more predictable economy, but the district would also lose the opportunity to advertise a “no additional tax” or “no increase in tax” levy as this would require a higher millage.

Emily Honsa Hicks, another resident committee member, said parents may have a greater appreciation for the schools after seeing first-hand how the pandemic has affected their students’ education, and suggested going for a higher levy this fall.

“There are many people who are more in touch with the services that the schools provide,” she said. “There’s a real sentiment among parents right now that they never truly understood the amount of work that goes into [the schools].”

She later added that with the state budget cuts, she thinks the community may also be prepared to receive “some kind of ask” to make up for the loss in revenue. She speculated, also acknowledging that she could be wrong, that most taxpayers in the school district may not be too negatively impacted by the downward economy.

“I’m not saying to be completely tone deaf and ask for the moon in this environment, but I am thinking that it’s worth acknowledging the reality and expecting our community to be sophisticated enough to understand that when we get a huge [budget] cut, somebody’s going to have to help, that we’re going to have to pitch in,” Ms. Honsa Hicks said. “I think that the community is willing and able to do that in most cases.”

Resident committee member John O’Brien, however, said parents might make up a small minority of taxpayers. He added that business owners in the district, as well as their employees, may have been laid off or furloughed because of the state-mandated business closures.

But Mrs. O’Toole pointed out that most employees that were previously laid off or furloughed from part time positions, like restaurant servers, may not be property owners in the school district.

When Mr. Guddy asked when was the last time the district failed a levy, Superintendent Robert Hunt said the district failed a 7.9 mill levy back in the spring of 2007.

Mr. O’Brien recalled that the levy ended up passing just a few months later in the following election.

Mr. Guddy then echoed Ms. Honsa Hicks’ idea of aiming higher now, noting that with so many unknowns, the district should prepare for the worst. “If you want it sooner, I just think you need more, you need to ask for more to build yourself some buffer for all the assumptions that you’re making,” he said.

Mrs. Brudno cautioned the board to be careful when considering asking for a higher levy in the fall because there is no certainty that the state cuts will be cut again for next year.

“That’s still up in the air,” she said. “I wouldn’t feel really comfortable going and asking the community [to] replace something that I don’t know for sure that I lost.”

Mr. Guddy said going for 3.85 mills in the fall is more likely to be approved by voters, but may not be enough for the district. On the other hand, he said going higher in November, while it may create a cushion if the school is faced with more cuts, risks failure.

“It’s like trying to pick which finger you want broken,” he said.

Sam Cottrill started reporting for the Times in February 2019 and covers Auburn, Bainbridge, Bentleyville and Chagrin, Kenston, Solon and West Geauga schools. She graduated from Kent State University in 2018 with a bachelor's degree in journalism.

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