News Column

Bond issue woes in Austintown

February 13, 2014

By Kalea Hall, Vindicator, Youngstown, Ohio

Feb. 13--AUSTINTOWN -- Chairwomen for the Austintown bond-issue committee say the biggest issues they face in educating the public are misconceptions about it.

Co-chairwomen Lori Gavalier and Kim Smrek are heading the initiative to pass the 4.1-mill bond issue to build a new high school, of which the state has offered to cover 47 percent, or about $31 million. The total construction cost is $64 million. The committee leaders presented their concerns to the school board during a work session Tuesday.

"Our concern is to get the people to vote on this issue and get the people to understand the facts that we are trying to convey," Smrek said.

The cost to renovate would be $34 million, but that does not take into consideration bringing the building up to code. A study done by the Ohio Facilities Construction Commission, which would provide the funding for the new construction, gave Austintown a 73 percent evaluation rating. When a school receives a rating above 66 percent, the OFCC recommends to build new rather than renovate.

The new, 21st-century 285,992-square-foot building would replace the 1960s-built Fitch High. About $34 million from the more than $45 million expected to be generated by passing the bond would go toward construction of a new school. The rest would go toward the locally funded initiative to revamp the auditorium, gym, football stadium and some classrooms near the auditorium.

The 37-year bond would cost the owner of a $100,000 home about $144 per year.

In 1994, the board tried to pass a permanent improvement levy, and it failed, Smrek said. In 2001 and 2002, the voters defeated the bond issue to build a new middle school. The state would have paid 39 percent of the cost, Smrek said. The Austintown Middle School that opened in 2007 was built solely on taxpayer funds through another bond issue, Smrek said.

The chairwomen said they have faced questions pertaining to open enrollment and other concerns. Open enrollment has been in place in Austintown as a result of failed operating levy attempts. The district has not received funds from an operating levy since 1996. Open enrollment was the option taken to avoid having to cut full-time positions in order to remain in the black, school officials have said.

Since its implementation during the 2009-10 school year, the number of open-enrollment students has increased. During the first year, about 200 students came into the district through open enrollment, according to Vindicator files. During the 2013-14 school year, 670 students have come in through open enrollment. The district brings in about $5,700 per open-enrollment student.

Last school year (2012-13), 569 open-enrollment students were accepted.

Although there have been concerns over capping open enrollment, Superintendent Vincent Colaluca said the district already places a cap on the number of students per class. For kindergarten through fifth grade, a 25- student-per-class cap is in place, and for sixth through 12th grade, a 27-student-per-class cap is in place. If those are reached, the classes will be closed off.

Due to a change in graduation-rate calculation, open enrollment at Fitch will be limited to incoming freshmen next school year. This will not affect current open-enrollment freshmen, sophomores or juniors wishing to return next year.

Also at the work session, Gavalier and Smrek expressed the need for support from the board of education as a whole on the bond issue. The board unanimously voted at a special meeting Jan. 29 to place the bond issue on the May ballot, yet one board member, Harold Porter, told the chairwomen he was not in full support of the measure. On Wednesday, Porter would not say whether he supported the bond issue, but that he would like to know more facts. He also said he voted to place the bond on the ballot so the community can make the decision on building a new school.

"It's going to come down to whether or not people can afford it," he said. "I would love to see a new school, but at what cost? I am not out there bashing [the bond] by any means."

If the bond issue does not pass in May, the district has a last option of having a special election in August before the state funding goes into a lapse status.


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Source: Vindicator (Youngstown, OH)

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