An organized opposition to Olentangy’s 7.9-mill levy launched this week, as its coordinator vied to not be “duped” again.
Olentangy resident Tracy Ruegg said voters did not know all the facts when they approved Olentangy’s levy in 2008.
In its wake, the grassroots Responsible Olentangy Citizens (ROC) group was created to serve as a “watchdog” to the district.
Ruegg, ROC treasurer and coordinator, said the district has not done enough to save money before asking taxpayers for theirs.
Specifically, she said the district could have negotiated more with the unions. While people in the district were losing jobs, Ruegg said union members were getting their bonuses.
“Our teachers are not underpaid,” said Ruegg. “They’re not addressing salary and benefits.”
“They’ll say we made a cut here and made a cut there, but you know that was from reallocation. It’s even on their fliers,” she continued. “Well, reallocation means you were overstaffed from the get-go.”
Similarly, with the outcome of Senate Bill 5 still unknown, she said “it’s way too early to ask taxpayers for money.”
The way Ruegg sees it, the district did not need all the levy funds it asked for in 2008, it “spent the money like crazy anyway,” and now, three years later, is unfairly asking for money again.
“Instead of saving for the rainy day, they just went ahead and said, I’ve got a new piggy bank, let’s spend it,” Ruegg said.
School board president Julie Wagner Feasel said ROC’s concerns are “an issue of not understanding school funding.”
The ROC website points out that the district did not spend as much as the forecasted budget after the levy, which Wagner Feasel confirmed.
“Whenever you close the books at the end of the fiscal year, hopefully you have a balance,” said Wagner Feasel. “(Olentangy) had a cash ending balance of about $5 million—that’s not even one month’s worth of expenses.”
“It’s not like schools are going to drain their funds down to zero, because they know next month there’s a payroll to make,” she added. “When you’re dealing with a multi-million dollar budget, $5 million isn’t a lot.”
Regarding the budget, Wagner Feasel said she would “challenge anybody that it’s not being managed wisely.”
She said the importance of the levy revolves around Olentangy’s growth, and that the district gained 3,000 students since the 2008 levy.
Olentangy has the second lowest cost per pupil in Delaware County, according to the Ohio Department of Education.
At the same time, Wagner Feasel noted, Olentangy has the second highest performance index.
“So if we’re doing something wrong, either our costs would be out of line or our performance index would be really low,” said Wagner Feasel.
To continue that standard, Wagner Feasel said the district could not wait for the outcome of the collective bargaining bill to become official, especially since it could take years to fully implement.
“We will gladly take advantage of all those tools when they are given to us, but we have to deal with the institution as it is now,” said Wagner Feasel. “When we ask voters for more money, it’s because we need more money.
Ruegg said she expects the vote to be “very close.”
She said the ROC website has been getting more hits every day and the group has grown to about 50 volunteers.
She also suspects a lot of “closet no-voters” are keeping quiet for fear of retribution from their neighbors.
While ROC is knocking on doors to spread awareness, so is Olentangy For Kids (OFK), a levy advocacy group.
Since its creation in 1999 and seven levy campaigns later, OFK has collected about 700 volunteers, OFK chairperson Kristen Fenker estimated.
Fenker said OFK worked independently from the district. Wagner Feasel affirmed that the school board does not fund OFK.
“The low cost per pupil means the district does what it does as efficiently as it can,” Fenker said, reiterating the group’s motto: The best bang for the buck.
“We’re growing by 1,000 kids a year,” she continued. “(Olentangy) cannot continue to provide that same level of service, with that growth, without a revenue increase.”
Fenker remembered a time when Olentangy was compared to Southwestern City Schools in Grove City. She said the community has since created the highly-regarded district Olentangy has become.
She said she would be voting yes “to make sure that the success we have built will continue.”
However, whereas the board proposed cutting extra-curriculars and bus services if the levy fails, the ROC website offers a list of preferred cost-saving initiatives.
Those ideas include cutting ten or more Olentangy Liberty School District administrative positions, returning student-teacher ratio to 16:1, consolidating bus routes, eliminating “retire-rehire” program, and delaying the opening of Heritage Elementary and Berkshire Middle School for a year.
ROC also called for a community-based Financial Advisory Group of experts.
Wagner Feasel said the district will be holding a free School Funding 101 class March 29.
Wagner Feasel said the class is part of a series open to the public, led by “gurus” from within as well as outside the district.
Additionally, ROC and OFK will be going door-to-door to get the taxpayers informed before the vote.