The Groveport Madison Local School District began 2013 with a major financial setback, but has managed to make headway on projects and attract some new funding opportunities.
In May, voters turned down a request for a new operations levy by 12 votes, leaving a $5 million hole in the budget that resulted in cuts to programs, staff and -- most visibly -- busing.
Busing was cut for high school students and cost-saving changes to bus routes and services were made districtwide in an attempt to operate under a tighter budget.
Richard Playko, assistant principal for safety at Groveport Madison High School, said that thanks to the efforts of parents and staff, there haven't been any injuries or serious incidents because of the lack of busing, but it was a major safety concern.
"Dealing with no busing was a challenge, but has gotten better every week," Playko said.
Superintendent Bruce Hoover said while the lack of transportation for high school students has had a tremendous impact, there also have been opportunities the administration has worked to provide to students.
One of the cuts affecting students this year was the number of extracurricular programs that are no longer receiving district funds, effectively eliminating those that can't find a way to pay for themselves. To help offset some of these losses, the district applied to participate in the Chris Spielman High School Team Challenge.
In November, Hoover announced that Groveport Madison was selected as one of two winners of a $10,000 McDonald's Activity Grant from the Spielman challenge.
Those funds will be used to offset pay-to-play fees and related expenses for extracurricular activities and sports.
Besides those challenge grants, students also managed to secure a record number of scholarships this year, according to Hoover.
"This year we had the greatest number of scholarships ever received by Groveport Madison students," he said. "That equated to over $5 million going to students for post-secondary opportunities."
Straight A grant
At the final school board meeting of the year, Hoover also announced the district had been awarded a Straight A Grant from the state that the district applied for in the fall.
The $1.8-million grant will provide teachers and staff with training on blended learning techniques and tools in an effort to develop blended learning options for students.
Hoover said this will be a two-phase project, with an opportunity for the district to compete for an additional $13 million next spring -- funds that could be used to implement the blended learning courses.
"We were chosen from 570 blind applications and we're pretty proud of the group we put together to write that grant," Hoover said.
"Those grants were awarded on a basis of innovative ideas and cost savings.
"I'm excited because it'll help our students in a cost-effective way ... offering flexible service options for the kids," he said.
The blended learning environment combines traditional classroom work alongside online coursework that can be done from any location.
District Treasurer Tony Swartz has been providing frequent budget updates to the board and staff during 2013, charting a course that he believes could get the district out of deficit spending within the next five years -- assuming there are no more unexpected funding cuts.
Swartz said this will depend upon the success of yet another levy campaign, anticipated in the spring.
"For the operating levy in May, we're looking at a number of about $5 million," he said. "Our last ask this year was $5.5 million and normally, we'd be even further behind after a loss, and (would) need to ask for the same amount again plus more.
"But given that we're expecting to get an additional $3 million from the state next year, I don't think it would be appropriate to ask for more than that," Swartz said.
A volunteer group of community members who worked on the last levy campaign has continued to work through the year in anticipation of the future need, Hoover said, and he thanked them for their support.
Funding for technology purchases was used this year to procure 660 Google Chromebooks which, according to district Technology Supervisor Peter Dotson, went into service the first week of school this fall.
On average, he said, more than 400 are being used every day.
"The teachers are saying how much they love the Chromebooks and specifically how the fourth-grade kids write so much more because they like typing," Dotson said. "The tech director from Westerville schools even came to see what we're doing because it's been so successful."