By Lenny C. Lepola
Ask Big Walnut Local School District Superintendent Steve Mazzi what’s changing as school opens next week, and he’ll say just about everything.
Big Walnut, like school districts throughout Ohio, is still recovering from the recent recession. Residential construction is recovering and creating increased student populations. And there’s the cost of adapting to new Common Core State Standards and Ohio’s Revised Academic Content Standards.
Then there’s the district’s five-year 7.5 mill emergency operating levy due to expire in 2015, a revised Ohio Department of Education report card for schools, new student assessment standards, online assessments and annexations for looming commercial development with possible tax abatements.
But during an interview last week Mazzi was upbeat. He said with change comes opportunity.
“We feel the opportunities in front of us are positive,” Mazzi said. “In the last couple of years we’ve been able to reopen two closed buildings. The intermediate school was closed for one year, and Harrison Street Elementary was closed for four years. Reopening those two buildings gives us the opportunity to reduce the numbers in our other buildings, reducing class sizes.”
Mazzi said mothballing two buildings during the recession helped lower operating costs. As student population growth picked up, the district was able to reopen the buildings without going to voters for a bond issue, but there were costs involved.
“People don’t see the back door stuff, but running our facilities is just like running a home,” Mazzi said. “What you were spending 10 years ago to maintain your home has gone up. Whatever you do to your home, multiply that times 100: roof, blacktop, painting. We have a responsibility to keep our facilities updated so we don’t pay more later playing catch-up, and we have to be fiscally responsible, making sure we’re staying within our maintenance budget.”
Mazzi especially noted paving, something most folks don’t think about because home driveways never experience the traffic of public school driveways and parking lots. He said each year dollars are devoted to crack sealing, resurfacing and pothole repair to avoid more costly full depth repair if blacktop is not maintained.
“And this year, as part of our district-wide safety initiative, we added classroom doors at Big Walnut Elementary and Hylen Souders,” Mazzi said. “That was paid for with leftover bond proceeds.”
Mazzi said the high point this school year would be Harrison Street reopening. When that building closed four years ago he promised two things — that someday HSE would reopen, and no student that was moved during the 2010 redistricting would be moved again by a second redistricting.
When HSE reopens next Wednesday, the last of the former HSE students will be fifth graders at Big Walnut Intermediate School.
“We’re so excited about reopening Harrison Street,” Mazzi said. “The look and the feel of it is more than I hoped for. When we were preparing the building to reopen we didn’t forget about its history. We intend to honor of the past culture of Harrison Street, but it will have a different feel for the times we’re in. It will speak volumes for our students and our community.”
Mazzi said it’s no secret that Big Walnut is going to grow even more in the years ahead. The Sunbury Meadows phases on the west side of Ohio 3 are almost built out, and Dominion Homes will soon move to the east side of the highway where more homes are planned. The Price Annexation on Sunbury Village Council’s agenda is another 180 acres slatted for residential development. NorthStar is adding homes, and there’s 2,500 acres of future commercial development around the I-71 interchange that will have a major impact on residential growth.
“The school district is mindful of preparing for facility growth,” Mazzi said. “Big Walnut schools can’t put out a No Vacancy sign. As new residents come in we have to educate their children, we have to accommodate them. That means acquiring land and building buildings, and that won’t be done with the amount of money it took the district to do in 2010. There are rising costs in everything. We keep an eye on that and continue to work with developers to make sure schools are kept whole.
“When dirt turns over at the freeway we’ll be there, but people need to realize that whatever they’re hearing we only have two revenue sources: property tax and income tax, and the income tax is a bedroom tax, which means not everyone pays,” Mazzi continued. “We have no set revenue we’re going to get from the outlet mall, no known income at all, and we can’t put anticipated income on a five-year forecast and have it approved by the county auditor.”
Mazzi also noted that it’s still uncertain when AEP’s Vassell Transmission Substation will go online — 2015 or 2016. Collections will start the year after that, he said, and the district would start receiving tax disbursements the year following that.
“The timing is such we won’t see a dime from Vassell until 2017, at least,” Mazzi said. “And it’s still unclear how much we’ll get. To continue operating at the level we’re operating at today we will be on the ballot May 15. We’re asking everybody for their support; it will be the same support they’ve been giving us for the last five years. It’s critical a levy passes in May because we just don’t know about any other potential revenue; every other source of revenue is a guess and that cannot be put in the budget.”
With the rapidly evaporating levy and escalating residential growth it’s understandable that managing the district budget weighs heavily on Mazzi’s mind, but near the end of the interview he emphasized the district’s number one priority: educating students.
“Our commitment to academic achievement remains our number one goal, providing a quality education for our students as they grow into adulthood,” Mazzi said. “Our mission is to inspire and guide each student to reach his or her maximum potential, and I have to emphasize each student. Our test scores remain high. We still have work to do with IP kids, economically disadvantaged and a small percent of multiracial, but overall we continue to look at each of our students and provide them with a quality education.”