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Bellaire In Fiscal Emergency

February 21, 2011
The Intelligencer / Wheeling News-Register

BELLAIRE - The Bellaire Local School District has cut $2 million from its budget over the past year through layoffs and other areas. However, another million dollars will need to be found soon if the district is to get itself out of a fiscal hole.

Bellaire Local Schools has been in a state of "fiscal emergency" since it was determined a $3 million budget deficit existed in December 2009. Superintendent Tony Scott met with Bellaire residents last month for his "State of the Schools" address. He informed them that more cuts would likely be coming, and that residents are going to have to shoulder part of the burden through increased taxes.

"The next step is the board will have to reconvene and start from scratch and look at the options we have. We need more input from the community. ... I don't believe we can get out of debt without some increase in taxes," Scott said.

Twice in 2010 the school board asked voters to approve a bond levy that would fund the schools. It failed both times by wide margins. If things don't change soon, the possibility exists that Bellaire's school district could be dissolved.

At the heart of the January meeting was the question of whether the community wanted to keep its schools and, if so, what would residents be willing to support - an 8.9-mill levy or a 1 percent earned income tax - to fund them.

"We are at a crisis, and I am so glad that we have the crowd that we have here tonight because there is nothing more important in this town than what is taking place in our schools," Scott told the 100 people in attendance.

Fact Box

Voters in Bellaire defeated two levies last year to fund operations in the village's school district. What's the future of Bellaire Local Schools going to look like?

Right now, no one knows. Bellaire Superintendent Tony Scott last month held a "State of the Schools" meeting seeking input on another ballot measure to fund the schools. As it stands now, up to 14 additional teachers could lose their jobs at the end of this school year.

The district was declared to be in "fiscal emergency" in December 2009, when it failed to eliminate a $3 million budget deficit. As a result, the state has installed a five-member financial planning and supervision committee to oversee the district's spending. The district also had to borrow money from Ohio's solvency fund to cover operating costs.

As part of cutting costs, Scott said the school district has eliminated 19 teacher positions, four administrators and several certified staff.

According to Scott, 14 more teaching positions will need to be cut to make up more of the difference. Twelve teachers have indicated the desire to retire at the end of the school year, Scott said, adding that the district is also bracing for a 10-20 percent cut in state funding. The two plans offered for consideration were either a five-year, 8.9-mill levy or a five-year, 1 percent earned income tax for residents of the school district. The 8.9-mill levy would generate about $960,000 a year for the schools, while the income tax would generate about $1 million a year, Scott said.

Scott said a telephone survey of village residents indicated a preference for the income tax proposal.

"What we found was that there was some support for the earned income tax. I will say there was polarization from that. There were some people that thought it was a really good idea and there people who did not like it at all." In the meantime, Scott said classroom size has increased in Bellaire's schools as a result of the district's cuts.

"The days of 20, 22, 23 kids in a classroom are long gone," he said. "One of the things we are struggling with is when we built our new buildings, they were built to hold about 25-26 kids in a classroom. We are going to have more than that in some of our classrooms at the elementary and middle school, but hey, we've got to do what we've got to do.

"I'm an advocate for this. If it were my son or daughter, I'd rather have them in a class with 35 with a great teacher than with a mediocre teacher with 20."

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