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17 Stark school districts join forces for countywide levy to support mental health, safety in schools

Akron Beacon Journal - 4/20/2018

April 20--School shootings. Threats. Teen suicides and deaths.

In a year when such tragedies have dominated the headlines, perhaps no area locally or even statewide has felt the impact more than Stark County, where 12 students have committed suicide -- one inside Jackson Middle School -- since August.

As state and even national agencies intervene to try to understand just what is going on in the county, educators are joining forces to try to tackle the issue at the hub for kids -- in schools.

A group of 17 school districts served by the Stark Educational Service Center has put a continuing levy on the August ballot to support security, safety and mental health within schools.

The levy is spearheaded by the ESC, which voted last month to form a county school financing district with the 22 districts it serves. Most are in Stark County, while a few reach into Carroll, Summit, Tuscarawas and Wayne counties.

State law says educational service centers can create school financing districts, or taxing districts, to allow a group of schools to request continuing levies for a few specific purposes, such as special education expenses or permanent improvements.

Prior to last month, forming a school financing district for a continuing school safety and mental health levy wasn't possible.

But when the ESC, local superintendents, state lawmakers and the Ohio Attorney General's office met early last month to discuss solutions, a lawmaker came up with an amendment to the state law that would allow ESCs to form taxing districts for the purpose of school safety, security and mental health.

Gov, John Kasich signed the amendment into law March 30, effective immediately.

"We're finding here locally that the generation of students in our schools right now are facing anxiety and mental health issues like no other generation that's come through," said Joe Chaddock, the superintendent of the Stark ESC.

Districts consider

Since then, school boards have quickly assembled to vote on whether they want to participate.

Districts had to decide whether to opt in by Monday. Then, the governing board of the ESC met Thursday evening and voted to accept those districts and passed a resolution of necessity for the levy.

The ESC will meet Wednesday to take the final step of putting the levy on the August ballot. The deadline to file is May 8.

Voters in those 17 districts that have decided to participate will see the issue on their ballots; voters in the five districts that opted out will not. The levy will pass if the majority of all voters approve the issue.

Chaddock said rough estimates show the 1.49-mill levy would serve about 44,000 kids, generating about $226 per student, or $9.75 million annually. Participating districts will receive the money based on their enrollment. ESC will not receive any money from the levy.

Chaddock said the strategy of districts banding together to request a levy, rather than pursuing one on an individual basis, allows them to navigate pitfalls of the current school-funding model, which has been ruled unconstitutional by the Ohio Supreme Court four times. Because schools are funded by property taxes, the wealthier districts with higher property values receive more money than less wealthy areas, regardless of pupil enrollment.

But the issue Stark faces is an adolescent mental health "contagion," Chaddock said, unbound by the limitations of wealth.

"It doesn't stop at a school district line," Chaddock said. "[School] leaders understood there'd be some cost-sharing, but they thought it very critical that a district that maybe didn't have the same resources or support could still have the same opportunity."

For districts like Massillon City Schools, the decision to participate was an easy one, with the school board voting 5-0 in support of it.

At the beginning of this year, the district was already looking at extra safety measures to put in place, said Superintendent Richard Goodright. But the influx of suicides and the February school shooting in Parkland, Fla., cast a national spotlight on those issues and made them even more urgent.

"Mental health is at the forefront of what we do," Goodright said. "We've already put aside $100,000 out of our general fund to make our district more safe, so certainly an initiative like this would help save the dollars we use for instruction and for students."

Goodright said the district already has a professional counselor at each of its five schools who work with kids that parents and educators identify as having mental health issues.

With about 4,000 kids in the district, Massillon would receive a little more than $900,000 annually from the levy that would go toward metal detectors at the middle and high school, as well as double-door systems and extra police personnel in all schools, Goodright said.

In the North Canton district, which also opted to participate, officials have reviewed safety procedures and made minor adjustments this year -- but they have not yet had the chance to implement the increased security measures or school resource officers that they want in place.

"We have a crisis in our community," said Superintendent Jeff Wendorf. "This gives us a chance to collaborate with other districts and other services ... and it would certainly make these dollars last longer."

Not so fast

For other districts, the decision was not as clear-cut.

The five that opted out of pursuing the levy are Canton City Schools, Canton Local Schools, Perry Local Schools, Green Local Schools in Summit County and Carrollton Exempted Village Schools in Carroll County.

Districts that opted out did so for several reasons. Some were concerned that if their district voted not to approve the levy, but a majority of voters approved it overall, then taxpayers would be left to pay for something they didn't want. Others, like Perry Local Schools, already have levies on the May ballot, either for school safety or other improvements, and are concerned that adding another would place an unnecessary burden on taxpayers.

Canton City Schools Superintendent Adrian Allison said the district had three reasons for opting out: It has already invested a "significant amount of dollars" into safety and security over the past few years; residents of school districts cannot vote for members of the ESC board, so the governance structure doesn't necessarily represent Canton residents; and the board did not think the time given was "sufficient to properly determine the unintended consequences of the levy on the district's long-term financial needs."

Just because some districts aren't participating, though, doesn't mean they're not involved in finding a solution.

Chaddock said two committees have been formed to address the issues at hand. One is the Safety and Security Task Force, which is headed up by the Stark County Sheriff and includes local superintendents, local law enforcement and representatives from homeland security.

The second committee is a countywide coordinating committee that involves health departments, mental health agencies, law enforcement, hospitals, the Ohio Department of Health and the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which was in the county for about two weeks investigating the suicides. Their findings will be complete in about four to six months, said Stark County Health Commissioner Kirkland Norris.

"It's a very complex problem, and it's a community problem," Chaddock said. "I don't think there's one aspect of our community that has not been touched by this."

Theresa Cottom can be reached at 330-996-3216 or Follow her on Twitter @Theresa_Cottom.


(c)2018 the Akron Beacon Journal (Akron, Ohio)

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