Impending 2020 referendum looms over East’s future, finances

The Finance and Facilities Advisory Committee discuss and debate the various ways in which to improve the school’s financial situations and the 2020 Referendum at their meeting. “If you vote no, we take that to mean that the community would like us to make it work with the funding we have right now. As Board members, to come up with solutions. It’s the public’s responsibility to vote,” President Lauri Doyle said.

On January 21, the Finance and Facilities Advisory Committee met in the District Administration Center to discuss the ramifications of the referendum on the school district and to answer questions from members of the community. While no parents were present at the meeting, this did not stop members from discussing the district’s future and its budget at great length. The meeting focused on the consequences and benefits of the 2020 Referendum and how to create more funding for the district. The upcoming referendum will decide the district’s budget’s fate for the upcoming year and affect future students, teachers, and administrative officials alike. Until then, members of the School Board have had various meetings to ensure that the voters are educated before they make their final decision.  

However, this isn’t the first time that the referendum has been introduced. Just last year, the School Board had a referendum, but it was decided against by voters. Due to low turnout, School Board President Lauri Doyle said that they wanted to give voters another opportunity on March 17, which is when the next vote will take place.

“We have the opportunity to reintroduce the referendum every year. There was an overwhelming support from the community to vote on it again. The last time, in 2019, the voter turnout was less than 20%. Always vote. This is going to decide what school is like. This is what determines what our community is going to be like,” Doyle said. 

As of right now, the district is in a debt that is $400 million dollars deep. Doyle explained that the district is staying afloat through buying bonds, which is another method of borrowing money and will be the method that the district will continue to use if the referendum is not passed. Ultimately, this will cause the district’s financial rating to decrease.

“A bad financial rating makes borrowing money harder and increases interest fees…It costs 100,000 dollars a year for the loans because of the interest fees. It costs us more money to stay in debt. We’re going to have to take on more debt just to stay afloat,” Doyle added. 

By voting to pass the referendum, a 30 cent tax would be implemented on every $100 thousand dollars that a family’s home costs. As a result, the extra money would be employed to decrease class sizes, hire more teachers, take care of overdue maintenance issues and provide summer school transportation. Assistant Principal Julie Lam said that she supports the referendum because the funding would allow the district to gradually climb out of debt. 

“Annually, we spend $200 million dollars for operating costs, which pays for things like maintenance and other necessities. The School Board’s policy says that we should have 20% of this money allotted in a savings account somewhere. We don’t,” Lam said.

Looking to the district’s and Oswego’s past, one of the sources of the district’s financial woes can be found in the large period of population growth that occurred 20 years ago. In this week’s meeting, School Board member and Co-Chair of of the Finance and Facilities Advisory Committee Brent Lightfoot said that the impact fees of that time are related to the current situation.

“When new residential properties develop, government entities charge impact fees, transition fees, and land cash. Those fees cover the school district and educate the students. During the high growth period of 1998-2007, a number of developments were built in areas where impact fees were either waived or greatly reduced to encourage growth,” Lightfoot said.

“Annually, we spend $200 million dollars for operating costs, which pays for things like maintenance and other necessities. The School Board’s policy says that we should have 20% of this money allotted in a savings account somewhere. We don’t.”

— Assistant Principal Julie Lam

When the money provided by impact fees was reduced, funding for the school’s district decreased along with it. Paired with the rapid growth of the time, Lightfoot said that this created financial strain. 

“That’s money that could’ve been used for the school district and to pay for new buildings. We had no way of stopping [the government] from waiving fees,” Lightfoot said.

In recent years, the district’s budgetary problems have led to a series of budget cuts. According to Lam, the school’s increasing debt and annual budget cuts potentially affect certain students more than others, especially when it comes to transportation. 

“Summer school transportation is important because some people don’t drive. When we don’t provide transportation, students who have failed courses or can’t afford to drive themselves are affected by this. These students are usually of a low socioeconomic status. It become an equity issue,” Lam added.

Taking away summer school transportation was just one of the many cuts that were implemented  throughout the school district. In addition to this, participation fees for extracurriculars and sports were also increased. Football, track and field coach, and physical education teacher Tyson Leblanc said he supports the referendum and has seen how inequity has affected East’s sports, as sports fees have risen to 300 dollars.

“The high fees for sports have discouraged certain students from participating…I coach track and it’s had a huge impact on track. A few years ago, we had a 130 guys on the team and now we’re down to 70. Several of the kids we spoke to said that it was a money issue. When I talk to coaches in the other schools, it’s very disheartening to [speak with them about it],” Leblanc said. 

However, it isn’t guaranteed that the passing of the referendum will mean automatically reduced extracurricular fees. Lam said that this may happen in the future, but is an issue that is not as urgent as other problems facing the district.

“The fees for activities might be reduced, but I can’t say for sure. We have very urgent things to get to, like maintenance and repairs that keep racking up. Fees might be scaled back in the future, though,” Lam added. 

The vote for last year’s referendum received a turnout of less than 20%. In comparison to last year’s campaign for the referendum, Lam said that changes have been made to voter outreach methods to ensure a larger turnout.

“This district really stepped up its communication game this year. There’s a lot of misinformation out there, but the district has posted helpful pages on the district’s website for voters to reference and have been sending out emails so that people are aware of what’s going on,” Lam said. 

When the referendum failed to pass last year, Doyle said she witnessed many parents surprised that the referendum was already complete and the decision had been made. She explained how some people regretted missing the vote and what that meant for their children.

“It is a very hard thing to reduce things that our own kids love and that will make them successful as adults. Every year, we have to cut things that people want and need for their kids. This makes such an impact on the daily functions of our community,” Doyle said. “We want the community to weigh in on this because this is really important and we need to understand what our community wants. People need the opportunity to vote on what they want their public education to be.”

Ashita Wagh is the Arts & Entertainment Editor for Oswego East High School’s online news magazine the Howl

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