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Local school levies left in limbo as coronavirus forces primary day delay

Posted at 5:26 PM, Mar 17, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-17 18:39:36-04

EASTLAKE, Ohio — The historic postponement of Ohio’s primary elections added yet another wrinkle to an already chaotic week that has brought government, businesses and schools to a halt amid the coronavirus pandemic. For local school districts that were looking for March 17 elections to see if their tax levies and ballot initiatives passed, even more is uncertain. Despite the uncertainty, the staff at Willoughby-Eastlake Schools remain dedicated to their students, providing meals and technology that will allow the instruction to continue.

Officials from Willoughby-Eastlake Schools spent much of the day Tuesday working one by one through a steady stream of cars to pass out district-owned Chromebooks for district students who don’t have computer or internet access at home.

“A lot of families have computers or laptops at home already that they can use so this is really for the kids that don’t have anything to use for home instruction,” said Patrick McKinney, the school district’s director of technology. “We just want to get these devices out so those teachers can communicate with them and give them assignments online.”

It was clear that the parents whose children were loaned district Chromebooks were grateful.

“It’s fantastic,” said parent Sherri Hill. “It means a lot. It’s huge for them. They miss their friends. They miss that in-school time but this is good for them. They have to continue.”

In addition to providing technology assistance, the district is also providing meals to students that qualify for the free and reduced lunch program. As part of the End 68 Hours of Hunger program, the district is also providing meals to qualifying students on weekends as the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year remains up in the air.

Superintendent Steve Thompson, like other school administrators in districts across the region, was expecting to find out whether voters would approve or disapprove of the district’s $4.94-million tax levy that was on the ballot. The levy, which Thompson said was desperately needed to offset revenue cuts on the state level, was the top issue for many voters in both communities. Because of some 11th hour, historic legal maneuvering, state leaders including Gov. Mike DeWine convinced the courts to uphold the postponement of the primary elections, declaring that voting on Primary Day constitutes a health emergency because of the continuing spread of the coronavirus.

“We’re at a very critical juncture for our school district and our community to deliver the kind of education what I believe our community wants, what I believe our community expects. We have to fund that,” Thompson said. "I'm saddened for our employees. If this levy were to fail, we have to make an additional $5 million in cuts. We have a group of staff members who are unsure about their future, unsure about their employment. They at least thought they were going to get the answer on March 17. Now they aren’t going to get that answer until June. It’s crippling. If they do get cut as a result of the failed levy look at the window they have to seek employment at another school district.”

At this point, Thompson said the district is focused on meeting the needs of the students even though it appears the rest of the school year might be canceled.

“We’re not taking calamity days. We’re doing our very best to continue instruction and that is super critical — first and foremost for our (high school) seniors,” Thompson said. “How do you not take care of your students in a crisis? Very often the school becomes the central hub of that.”

For school districts elsewhere in Northeast Ohio, including Lakewood, it is also a waiting game.

“The safety of our citizens is the No. 1 priority, and we’ll adjust accordingly. We’ll take some time to pause and the regroup with the mission the same as before,” said Dr. Michael Barnes, the superintendent for Lakewood City Schools. “Issue 28 is necessary for the vitality of our district moving forward. We want to be positioned to continue to offer rich programming for students and enhance their education experience. That has not changed.”