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Forest Hills Schools asks a divided community to unite for crucial levy in May

Zack Carreon

When a levy for Forest Hills Local School District was first proposed late last year, district superintendent Larry Hook and others on the school board expressed concern about its chances of passing. After all, many area school districts saw their levies fail on the November ballot. Now, the levy appears to have an even steeper hill to climb due to a board resolution passed last year.

Forest Hills' "Culture of Kindness" resolution bans assignments that require students to consider race, class, religion, and sexual identity. The resolution sparked a backlash from students and parents that felt it was an attack on LGBTQ+ and minority students.

There's a lot riding on the financial ask that will go before district voters in the spring.

"Not a fun time," Hook said about the potential budgets the district will have to make if its combination levy fails on the ballot on May 2.

The levy would cover the school district's operational costs and pay for updates to school buildings, which the superintendent says is badly needed.

At a school board meeting on Wednesday, parents addressed the members of the board asking them to repeal the resolution to regain some of the community's trust and build support around the levy.

While almost all of the parents that spoke at the meeting said they supported the levy, they were not as confident about its chances of success if the resolution remains an issue.

"I personally am for the levy," Forest Hills parent Natalie Hastings said. "I think if they would rescind the resolution it would go a long way toward bridging a gap and bringing people together. And we've got until May, so I believe it can happen. I believe even if it doesn't happen, people will come together. This may be our only shot."

Parents and teachers filed a lawsuit against Forest Hills School District last June over the Culture of Kindness Resolution.

Hastings, a plaintiff in that lawsuit, told WVXU that the measure has alienated parts of the community and will make it hard for some to get behind anything the district does in the future, even for things as crucial as this levy.

If the levy fails, Hook says the district will have to make major cuts in key areas.

A first round of cuts will happen regardless of the results of the levy. It eliminates a handful of staff positions, shrinks the district's summer school program, and raises the cost of preschool enrollment. Those reductions will save the district $750,000.

A second round of cuts depends on if the levy passes. If it fails, Forest Hills will cut 17 teaching positions, raise fees for extracurricular activities, and cut some of its bus drivers and bus routes. Those cuts would reduce the school's costs by $1.6 million.

The board did not vote on whether to repeal the resolution. But board member Leslie Rasmussen said it's the biggest thing standing in the way of the upcoming levy. She would like to ditch the resolution as soon as possible.

"There are some roadblocks," Rasmussen said. "The largest, glaring roadblock is this resolution. It needs to go. It is a barrier and it is making the levy committees work harder. We could end this right tonight. I'll give you one vote. It takes three."

Zack Carreon is Education reporter for WVXU, covering local school districts and higher education in the Tri-State area.