Upper Arlington school leaders are starting the new year by mulling over possible budget cuts after a levy failure, continuing the search for a new superintendent and deciding when to ask voters for another levy.
Board of education President Robin Comfort said school leaders face an uncertain financial future in 2013.
"We have the real possibility of another levy on the ballot this year," she said. "We realize that we need to communicate stories of student success as well as our financial forecast. School funding is not easy to explain in a nutshell, but we are determined to continue our efforts to do so."
She said leadership changes have occurred in all of the district's buildings over her past five years as a school board member.
"Now I will see the top leadership change for the district and one that will no doubt continue to lead the Upper Arlington schools to academic excellence -- with a new flavor," she said.
She said the "horrific loss" from the December school shootings in Newtown, Conn., has local school board members also "continuing to look at the safety of our schools."
"There is no doubt that Upper Arlington has many challenges in the coming year," she said. "However, we have sterling leadership in our buildings and will search for that shining star at the top."
Superintendent Jeffrey Weaver said changes in state funding and mandates mean the school district must also change.
"The district must respond to the economic realities of the loss of the recent operating levy," he said. "We must work to position the district financially for whatever the new school funding formula may bring and respond to mandated changes in the teacher evaluation process."
Weaver will retire at the end of July.
"I will be starting a new chapter in the book of life after devoting the past 43 years to a career in public education," he said. "My wife, Linda, and I will be joining my three daughters, two grandchildren and other family members in the Dallas and Fort Worth area."
Board Vice President Robert Arkin said the "fresh eyes" of a new superintendent could be good for the district.
"It can be great for a district with high aspirations and we look forward to new leadership that will challenge every assumption, continue our commitment to fiscal prudence and strive to sustain and even enhance our outcomes for students," he said.
Communicating complex financial issues is more complicated, he said.
"It might be 'OK to vote no' once," he said. "We will survive the levy defeat of 2012, but in my view, it doesn't take much to dismantle the infrastructure of our excellent schools that people have spent decades building. I really doubt that anyone but a very small, vocal minority seek that.
"Some people insist that we reduce teacher salaries, that we deal with retirement benefits from STRS, that we carve away at health benefits to bring them in line with the lowest in the private sector before we seek any new levy," he said.
Arkin said the district has no control over the STRS teacher retirement program and cannot negotiate salaries and benefits until the current teachers' contract expires in 2014.
He said the UA district is already "on a trajectory to share health care costs with faculty and staff on an increasing and continuing basis."
"With organized opposition to the last levy, we will have to be clearer, more detailed and more energetic in explaining what we have done and how school finance works," he said.
"We will need to find a way to convey our purpose and aspirations to the citizens of UA -- not so much to convince them, but to provide context and then let them decide what sort of district and education they want in this community.
"I feel confident they will want the UA Schools to continue to be among the best in the nation," he said.
School board member Nancy Drees said the new superintendent will have "an open playbook."
"New administration, relatively new principals at all Upper Arlington schools and a large number of new teachers from recent retirements, mean immediate loyalty and organization -- a superstar's dream," she said.
She said "bringing costs in line" will be the biggest challenge in 2013, due to a new state biennial budget.
"We will be working in overdrive to determine what areas will be affected," she said.
She said 42 district staff members are already participating in a pilot teacher evaluation system in response to new state guidelines, evaluating teachers on performance and student academic growth.
Board member Stacey Royer is looking forward to tackling the year's challenges "as a part of a strong, cohesive group."
"We are first considering the cuts that must be made in a very deliberate, strategic way," she said. "These are crucial decisions and they cannot be made without first reviewing all of the data and financial information.
"I am confident we will make the necessary changes and will then regroup and focus our time and energy on doing what's best for students."
Royer said Upper Arlington voters will be a part of the process.
"I am looking forward to talking with the community and responding to their issues and concerns as we regroup and think about a future levy," she said. "I am hopeful that as we gain more information from the community and we share information with them, we can once again build strong grassroots support for our schools and consequently, pass a levy."
Board member Marjory Pizzuti said board members are committed to a strong fiscal responsibility.
"We will be making the tough cuts in expenses to ensure the district's financial viability," she said. "Upper Arlington is a special place where we have a strong community that values education and understands the importance of a high-performing and high-achieving school system.
"Our children deserve the best education we can offer and we intend to continue to provide that, within the financial limits of our funding.
"We understand the clear message that the voters of Upper Arlington have sent us," Pizzuti said.
"We managed to stretch a three-year levy to five years through prudent management, which was a remarkable accomplishment during a difficult economic environment," she said. "We now know we need to redouble our efforts to communicate the complexities and ongoing challenges we face with the financial management of the district."