Niles to seek smaller levy in May

NILES — The Niles City School District will seek a smaller levy in May and look to cut jobs as a way to address looming budget deficits and state-designated fiscal caution status.

The board on Dec. 19 approved a fiscal caution plan that will be submitted to the state by the end of the month. A copy of that plan was not immediately available, but Superintendent Ann Marie Thigpen highlighted the details.

The district likely will seek a 5.8-mill levy that would generate about $1.3 million and cost the owner of a $100,000 home approximately $210 in additional annual taxes, Thigpen said. The millage and exact amount it would generate and cost still need to be certified by the county auditor, she said.

The announcement regarding a smaller levy, made during the Dec. 19 Board of Education meeting, is a departure from statements Thigpen made after voters overwhelmingly rejected in November a 9.25-mill levy attempt that would have generated $2 million annually for the district and cost the owner of a $100,000 home more than $300 a year in additional taxes. At the time, Thigpen said the district would seek the same levy in May.

The district is facing a $1.3 million deficit in fiscal year 2019 that a 5.8-mill levy would shore up, Thigpen said, but an additional $700,000 in savings would be realized through elimination of one administrative position, four teachers and two other non-teaching positions like custodians, bus drivers, cafeteria workers or secretaries.

“We are looking to make cuts in May,” Thigpen said.

If the levy doesn’t pass in May, the district would need to look at cutting four to six additional teaching positions and three to four more non-teaching positions, bringing the total of jobs on the line if a May levy fails to around 17, Thigpen said.

Thigpen said the district cannot cut $1.3 million in programs, and addressing budget concerns will ultimately come down to eliminating positions should the May levy fail.

“It’s always difficult to even utter those words because positions are people — people who we work and live next to,” Thigpen said.

However, without the levy passage, the district also would consider eliminating field trips and implementing pay-to-play for sports in a community where 65 percent of students qualify for free and reduced lunches, Thigpen said. She also addressed what she described as “the negative picture drawn about school employees” and salaries they earn or raises they receive.

“We serve and our service is educating our most precious and valuable assets — young people,” Thigpen said. “We do not get into this business to be bus drivers, secretaries, custodians, administrators, teachers, to make a lot of money. Most of chose this path because we have a passion and that passion is to serve, and serving our youth is a top priority in our lives.”

Board of Education president Susan Longacre said Thigpen’s defense of salaries and discussion of the cuts and the possible implementation of pay-to-play or elimination of field trips choked her up.

“Asking the community for more money and again having to make staffing cuts just gets to me,” Longacre said. “But we have a business to run and we have to be in the black. Hopefully the voters will support this in May.”