By JAN LARSON McLAUGHLIN
BG Independent News
Bowling Green Board of Education handed the car keys over to the community Monday evening. After two failed attempts to pass a $72 million school bond issue for buildings, the board has now put the community in the driver’s seat.
Approximately 150 citizens met in the school’s performing arts center to listen to where the district goes from here.
Board President Jill Carr invited citizens to sign up for one or both of two task forces being formed – one to study school facilities and the other to study finances. The task forces will set their own meeting schedules, decide what information they need, and report back to the board.
“This will be a community-driven process,” Carr said. “The board will step back.”
Though the administration and board will make requested information available to the task forces, they will take a back seat in the process, Superintendent Francis Scruci said.
The goal is to come up with a “solution that the community can support,” Scruci said. “Regardless of which side you stood on in November and May.”
The district is at a “critical juncture,” the superintendent said, urging the community to work together, and refrain from name calling and personal attacks.
“We need to rise above for the good of all,” Scruci said.
The process of putting the community in charge of building projects and funding is quite unusual, according to David Conley, an expert in school finance hired by the district earlier this year.
But it has been done by about 10 of Ohio’s 600 school districts, Conley said. In those 10 cases, most of the districts ended up winning at the ballot, he added.
The task forces will identify the needs of the district, then decide how to pay for those improvements. Conley will act as facilitator for the finance task force. The facilitator for the facilities group has not yet been selected.
“You’re being given the power to make the decisions for the district,” he said to the audience.
Conley cautioned that anyone joining a task force should make a commitment of at least six months, with one or two meetings each month. He also warned that those unwilling to work on the project have no right to complain later.
“Don’t criticize the result of the work of the committees after the fact,” he said. “Don’t sit at home and expect someone else to do the job for you.”
Conley talked about the duties of each task force, which will start their work in August. The facilities group will study the condition of the district’s buildings now and consider future curriculum requirements. Ultimately, the group will decide if the district should renovate old buildings, or build new schools, or a combination of the two.
The facilities task force will take guided tours of the five Bowling Green school buildings, hear from state experts about facilities assessments done on the buildings, and visit other Ohio districts that have renovated old buildings and constructed new schools.
“Then you can formulate your ideas of what you want for your kids,” Conley said.
The task force will work with the district’s architect on proposals and come up with cost estimates. That information will then go to the financial task force, which will figure out how to pay for the building proposal.
The financial group will look at all forms of funding – earned income tax, traditional income tax, property tax, state funding, corporate contributions, and even go-fund-me sites.
The financial task force will also consider how much the community can afford, and could possibly come up with a cap for the facilities task force.
The recommendations from both groups will be presented to the school board.
“They have no idea what you are going to decide to do,” Conley said. “They will put it on the ballot.”
“Everyone in this room is now the boss,” he said.
There will be no limit to the number of task force members, he added. “This has an impact on every single person who lives in the district.”
Conley fielded several questions from the audience, including some skepticism from Chris Sabo, who asked if Conley would be acting as an “extension of the board” as facilitator, since he is paid by the board.
“The board hired me, yes, to represent you,” Conley replied. “You own me.”
The facilitators need to be independent, neutral, have a good understanding of the topic, and not live in the district – if at all possible.
“I don’t have an agenda,” Conley said. “I don’t live here. I don’t have children here.”
Sabo was critical of Conley’s assessment of the district when he gave a presentation on how much the previously proposed bond issue would cost taxpayers. Sabo said Conley should have gone to people’s homes, and should know the price of beans since he’s working with an agricultural community.
“We’re stretched to the limit,” Sabo said.
Another citizen, Bud Henschen asked if Conley could be objective, since he stated prior to the last levy that property tax was the most fair form of taxation for the district.
“I am the expert,” Conley replied. “However, this is your school district.”
A man in the audience asked why Bowling Green schools didn’t use state funding for new buildings, like so many other districts in the area. Conley explained that the state has a formula for deciding the wealth of a district. That formula puts Bowling Green among the wealthy schools, and makes funding unavailable for several years.
Sabo asked about the possibility of using sales tax for the district. Conley explained that currently only the state and counties can levy sales tax.
Another person in the audience was critical of communication during the last two levy attempts. Conley said the task force meetings will be recorded and posted for people to view.
Two former educators expressed confidence in Conley’s leadership of the finance committee, but voiced concern about the unknown leadership of the facilities committee.
“You have to keep the education of the students absolutely paramount,” Linda Lander said.
“We need someone with some real expertise,” Frances Brent said.
Anyone interested in joining one or both of the task forces can contact Conley by going to his Rockmill Financial Consulting website and contacting him through email.