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2 school districts seek levies

Urbana asks for renewal, Mechanicsburg combines renewal and new request.

Two Champaign County school districts, Urbana and Mechanicsburg, are asking voters to approve separate levies this spring that each called crucial to avoiding additional cuts by next year.

In Urbana City Schools, which is already facing as much as $1 million in budget cuts this year, the district will ask voters to approve a 9.75-mill renewal levy that provides about $2.4 million to the district’s budget each year.

The levy was first approved by voters in 2008, and it helps cover operating costs that include salaries, instructional materials and utility bills. If approved, it would continue to cost about $307 a year for the owner of a $100,000 home, according to information from the Champaign County auditor’s office.

Last fall, voters in the district turned down a proposed 5.5-mill levy that would have raised as much as $1.3 million for the district and cost the owner of a $100,000 home about $168 a year. Thiel said he is more optimistic about the renewal levy, but said if it fails the district would have to cut an additional $1.75 to $2 million from its budget, on top of the $1 million in cuts already planned for this year.

“To add something like that onto the $1 million we’re making would be devastating,” Thiel said.

At that point, he said it’s possible the state would have to step in and manage the district’s finances.

“Without that renewal it would put us in a situation that would be extremely difficult,” Thiel said.

The district cut $800,000 from its budget last year, along with the cuts planned for this year. Even if the renewal levy passes, Thiel said board members will have to consider asking voters to approve another levy this fall. Among the cuts, the district has not filled positions left open from retirements and resignations. It has also frozen pay for district staff and administrators, and made changes to its health care in an attempt to hold down costs.

In the meantime, the district is considering what cuts to make to reach $1 million in savings this year. Board members are considering participation fees for sports, reducing busing, reducing staff, closing a school building and possibly eliminating some elective courses. The board will ideally have those decisions finalized by March, he said.

Urbana is not the only district asking voters for new revenue this spring. Board members in the Mechanicsburg Exempted Village School District will also ask voters to approve a renewal and increase for a total of 8.19 mills, said Superintendent Dan Kaffenbarger.

The previous renewal levy was for 2.48 mills, but the village is requesting voters to approve an additional 5.71 mills as well. The previous levy provided about $189,000 for the district, and the addition would bring in another $500,000. The district cut about $850,000 in expenses last year and is still looking for more ways to cut costs.

For voters, the levy would cost about $285 annually for the owner of a $100,000 home. A 2.48-mill levy, without the increase, costs about $76 a year for the owner of a $100,000 home.

“We looked at what would we need to get us out of deficit spending over the next two to three years,” Kaffenbarger said.

The district is taking a risk, Kaffenbarger said, but because of changes to the state retirement system, many staff members would actually earn less than last year without an increase in revenue.

The Mechanicsburg district recently hired a new treasurer, so it is not yet clear what cuts might be considered if the levy fails this spring, Kaffenbarger said.

Urbana and Mechanicsburg are the only two districts that have submitted levy requests for the spring ballot, said Kathy Meyer, director of the Champaign County Board of Elections. The deadline for candidates and issues this spring is Feb. 6.

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