Alexander’s Budget Strain Tops List of Candidate Issues

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Seven Alexander school board candidates made clear during a forum Thursday what they consider to be the top issues facing the district of close to 1,600 students.

Those issues include flat state funding that may result in further cuts, transparency of records and their thoughts on attempting another earned-income levy.

The seven candidates vying for three open seats answered questions written on cards from the League of Women Voters of Athens County, which sponsored the forum jointly with the Alexander Local Education Association.

The candidates are Jay Barnes, Josh Collins, Fred Davis, Margaret Demko, Ralph Harvey Sr., Lucy DeLaval Juedes and Judy Monk. Davis, who has spent nine terms and 36 years on the board, is the lone incumbent. Current Alexander School Board members Michael Chapman and Cory Russell did not file for re-election.

The first question of the night following candidate introductions — answered by each candidate, all of whom were seated at a table on the high school gymnasium stage — asked for the top issue facing Alexander Local Schools, and why.

Collins said it was the financial stability of the district, adding that if serious changes are not made involving greater efficiencies, then Alexander will become bankrupt within five years. Collins coaches soccer at the high school and works as a project manager at Sunpower Inc. in Athens. He said he has worked with a budget about the size of Alexander’s, one including aerospace projects. When greater efficiency is achieved and cost cutting has occurred, he said, an organization must then unfortunately look toward personnel for reductions.

The lone board incumbent was next to answer.

“It doesn’t take a degree in economics to see our expenditures are outpacing our revenues,” Davis said, adding that Alexander has not passed an operating levy since 1991 despite two recent failed attempts before voters involving a 1.5 percent, permanent earned-income levy.

The district has received funding from the state since 2008 that has increased just over 1 percent, while all of the district’s expenses — such as health insurance costs for employees — have increased markedly, Davis said.

According to a district report, Alexander received $9.44 million state funding in Fiscal Year 2008. This fiscal year, the projected state funding is $9.58 million, an increase of just 1.4 percent over the level received nine years ago.

Yet, Davis said, the district is considered the second-wealthiest in Athens County, behind Athens City Schools.

“The state is saying we do not tax ourselves to what their standards are,” Davis said. He also noted the district has been forced to cut 32 jobs since 2008 through the attrition process, including teachers and other staff positions, to balance the budget.

“I am always open to new ideas,” Davis said.

Demko said she believes that while the financial stability is a top issue facing Alexander Local Schools, the issue of transparency of records as part of “open, honest communication” is equally important. Demko, who has served as president of the Athens County Board of Developmental Disabilities for two terms, said the school district must win back the faith and trust of its residents. The district cannot continue to lose teachers and maintain its high level of education that Alexander offers its residents, she said.

Thus far, recent reductions following the most recent failed levy attempt have included a bus route and one bus driver, a number of educational programs such as a reading intervention contract with the Education Service Center, and several other positions in the district. Those positions included a teaching position, a food service position, one library aide and two non-certified positions.

Harvey, who worked at Ohio University for more than 30 years, said it would be “impossible” to pick out one issue that is more important than others.

“Sometimes we have to take what we have and make do with it,” Harvey said.

Money does not solve all problems, he said, but an informed school board can help assure that resources are sent where needed most to produce well-educated children.

Juedes, who said she would give up a position as an Alexander substitute teacher if elected, said the top issue in the district involves one of “trust.” It has been confusing for district parents and residents to hear of the district having the means to build the Alexander Wellness Center while having extreme financial shortcomings, she said. That confusion has been compounded by seeking an earned-income levy from voters.

Monk, whose husband Andrew Monk is a special education teacher and the district’s head wrestling coach, said the district’s five-year forecast for continued flat funding from the state has been difficult for teachers to bear. The district will need to get more creative than it ever has, maintain a positive outlook and look at things practically, she offered.

Barnes said the district’s budget over the next five years is the biggest challenge Alexander faces. How the district got to this point is irrelevant, Barnes said. The local accountant and longtime area resident said what is relevant is having the administration and school board unified on all important matters.

“Hopefully, we can get input from the community as well,” Barnes said.

Another question concerned each candidates position on an earned-income levy. Following failure twice before voters on a permanent, 1.5 percent earned-income levy, the current proposal is for a five-year, 1.25 percent earned-income levy that would raise close to $2 million per year in operating funds for the district.

Most candidates said they support the levy, with Barnes offering that he did not initially support it until he learned about “the depth” of the financial issues the district faces. Davis offered that without the levy passing in the future, forthcoming cuts “could be deep.”

Demko, however, said the district must first work on rebuilding trust with the communities that comprise the school district before handling other matters. She said the community needs to be assured that when additional revenue comes to the district, priority will be placed on spending that benefits teachers and their students.


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