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Graham Local schools deal with cuts, will seek new levy in November

As a new school year rolls around, students and families in the Graham Local School District are already seeing the effects of a failed levy attempt last May.

Graham Superintendent Kirk Koennecke said less than 50 votes in the election meant $1.5 million cut from the budget and 15 jobs lost.

Many of those jobs lost were school bus drivers, as transportation costs took one of the biggest hits. Koennecke said that means lengthy bus rides, longer waits and inconvenienced parents. He referenced some students who had to wake up at 5 a.m. just to catch their bus on the first day of school Tuesday.

MAY 2018: Superintendent: ‘Our need is very real, it did not go away’

“It’s one of the reasons why we’re making sure we’re providing breakfast in the classroom to all of our students,” he said.

Koennecke said he received calls from several concerned parents on the first day about the changes.

The average ride time on the bus for students increased by about 10 minutes, but in some cases, students actually added a half an hour each way.

“Getting up earlier and waiting in the dark — that’s something that none of us want,” he said.

Busing isn’t the only thing affected by the levy failure — fees also increased for preschool and play-to-play athletics. Koennecke said at the middle and high school levels, pay-to-play increased by nearly 40 percent.

“That’s a big hit to over 850 of the 1,300 families that we serve — many of the families have more than one child in the schools,” he said.

But Graham is headed back to the ballot this November, asking voters a third time for the same one percent earned income tax for a five-year term. The funds could generate $2 million for the district, and would cost a taxpayer who makes $30,000 about $300 a year.

EARLIER: Champaign County school district looks to put income tax on ballot Nov. 2018

A similar increase was defeated in November 2017 by 61 percent to 39 percent, but narrowly missed by the mark in May by less than 50 votes. Koennecke said while digging into details of the May election failure, the district learned that over 400 parents still did not turn out to vote.

“We can fix these things that are causing problems today on the opening day of school, which should be a day of celebrating learning for students,” Koennecke said.

Graham parent, Kathy DeWeese voted for levy in November and again in May, citing her beliefs in providing quality education for children. DeWeese has one student in high school and another who graduated in 2016. 

“After reviewing the numbers, it isn’t so much in how the funds are spent by our district,” she said. “The real issue is how little funding the district gets, especially compared to other districts. I think Graham is doing wonderful things on a shoestring budget -- just think of what they could do with proper funding.” 

DeWeese said she was disappointed with the narrow loss in May, knowing that cuts were looming.

“We should be more thoughtful of the huge responsibilities put upon leadership at the schools. I think until you walk in their shoes, you are second guessing,” she said. “[While] we should hold leadership accountable and there are avenues to make that happen, like attending school board meetings and staying involved. I just haven’t seen any fraud, waste or abuse that would lead me down such a skeptical path as I’ve seen on some social media about the levy.”

She will be voting ‘yes’ for the levy again in November. 

Koennecke said if this levy doesn’t pass, more cuts would be on the horizon — an additional $600,000. If it does, it’ll be the first since the early 1990s.

“It’s a 60-year-old school district that has only passed three levies. I think after 26 years, it’s about time to start reinvesting in our community,” he said.

Koennecke said the district will be holding several events before the November election to provide information to families about the levy. There will be a parent action forum at 6:30 p.m. on Sept. 5 at Graham Middle School.

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