BETHEL TWP. — At their meeting Monday night, the Bethel Local Schools board of education took steps towards permitting armed staff members in the schools.
The district also hosted a community forum directly after the meeting, where members of the board discussed topics including the building project, contract negotiations with the Bethel Education Association, security and district finances, and took questions from residents.
Another community forum will be held Monday, Oct. 2, at 7 p.m. in Bethel Hall, the new high school cafetorium. It will also discuss the building project and finances.
Board president Scott Hawthorn said that this resolution does not make immediate changes to school policy, but is a step toward permitting the district to grant written permission for staff members to be armed on campus.
The board voted unanimously to permit armed staff in the school safety zone. According to Hawthorn, the board is considering this step due to the length of response times from the Miami County Sheriff’s Office, as well as the cost to contract with a school resource officer.
“There’s no one answer to this problem,” he said.
The district is implementing ALICE active shooter response training, but Hawthorn said allowing approved volunteer staff members to be armed in the schools would be another layer of security.
During the public forum, Hawthorn discussed the decision further, saying that the district has looked into resuming a contract with the sheriff’s office for a SRO. The district discontinued that service in 2011 as part of a series of reductions in spending.
Hawthorn said that the cost to the district for a full-time SRO would be about $60,000 per year. He added that response times from the sheriff’s office are between 5 and 10 minutes.
Board member Joe Solch gave an overview of the district’s finances for the last 10 years, which touched on levies, budget cuts and teacher salaries.
The recession resulted in a budget crisis for the district in 2010, Solch said. During this time, state funding decreased and home building in Carriage Trails took off, “which resulted in a lot of the stress we have now,” Solch said. Enrollment has grown from 974 students in 2013 to 1,406 students in 2017.
School districts are typically expected to have a minimum of $2 or $3 million in cash balance to be considered solvent, but in 2010, the district’s cash balances dipped to about $500,000, Sebastian said.
The district made cuts in staffing and hours, froze teachers’ salary schedules and asked the community for a .75 percent income tax levy. Between 2011-2014, teachers did not receive any raises, he added.
“We were very critically low on cash,” Solch said. He added that, by law, a school district cannot operate without a cash budget. “In 2014 through 2016, we were able to give the teachers a raise. It wasn’t everything we wanted, but it fit within our budget at the time.”
Although steps were frozen, the teachers have received a 9.3 percent increase in base salary over the last three years, the board said. A step increase is typically about 2 percent each year, Solch said.
He also explained that part of the issue keeping the board and the union from reaching an agreement on the contract is that the previous contract included legally ambiguous language that failed to keep new hires’ salaries in line with current employees. The board said that both they and the BEA are to blame for this issue, as both parties signed the contract.
“I want to make it very clear right now that the board is not the only one that’s responsible for this problem,” Solch said.
He also compared Bethel teacher salaries to other school districts of similar size and economics, suing data from the Ohio Education Association.
A Bethel teacher with a bachelor of arts degree at Step 1 is paid $39,039, while the average salary is $34,115 and the highest is $39,703. A Bethel teacher with a master’s degree at Step 11 makes $59,138, while the average is $56,599 and the highest salary is $68,331.
During the discussion of step increases and salaries, members of the Bethel Education Association stood and walked out of the forum.
Solch directed attendees to the district’s website, www.bethel.k12.oh.us/index.php/district/board-of-education/straight-from-the-hive, where more information about the contract issues and salaries can be found.
Board member Lori Sebastian also presented information on the district’s expenses, which currently total about $12 million a year, of which labor constitutes approximately 72 percent.
She also tackled the misconception that athletics are a “money maker” for the district, when they actually cost more than double the amount they bring in, she said.
Revenue for the athletic programs totaled $143,000 last year versus $356,700 in expenses. Those expenses include labor costs, officials, field and equipment maintenance, uniforms and busing, she said.
She also noted that at four renewal levies, Bethel has the most renewal levies of any district in the county. Districts like Troy, Tipp City and West Milton have three, while Bradford has one. She said that the board is looking for ways to reduce voter fatigue and put levies on the ballot less frequently.
Following their presentation, the board heard from the community members in attendance, which ranged from budget questions and concerns that the new school is too extravagant, to concerns that the board is not prioritizing expenditures.
Residents also questioned the lack of a contract with the teachers union several weeks into the school year. The board explained that they cannot discuss the particulars of the negotiation process, which is ongoing.
“The board needs to make it right for our teachers, because they are the heart and soul of this school. I hear that you’re trying and I really don’t see that,” resident Rachael Kiplinger said. She said that the board has approved too much unnecessary spending on the new addition that could have gone to the teachers.
Former board member Scott Lawson said that the previous board made a mistake in thinking that steps could be done away with and said that it was time to get back to the step schedule.
“I trust that the board is trying to get there,” he said.