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Voters in Nearly 120 Ohio Districts Asked To Approve Tax Levies

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Cincinnati and dozens of other Ohio school districts have given voters a choice: Pass local property-tax levies or watch programs get axed.

Nearly 120 Ohio districts have placed levies on the Nov. 7 ballot. Administrators in many of those districts say passing the tax hikes is vital if they are to provide needed services and stay out of debt.

"We are out of places to cut," J. Michael Brandt, the superintendent of the Cincinnati schools, said last week. "It is to a point where the community needs to make a decision regarding the kind of school system it wants to have."

Ohio is not the only state where local school officials are pleading with voters this fall for new funds. Several districts in North Carolina and Arizona are asking voters for money to keep pace with soaring school enrollments.

"We have some counties where the growth is overwhelming," said Theresa K. Kostrzewa, an aide to state Rep. N. Leo Daughtry of North Carolina. Mr. Daughtry is a co-chairman of a legislative panel that is debating whether the state should help local districts float bonds.

In Colorado, meanwhile, 26 districts have asked voters to approve a total of $526 million in bonds for school construction to handle skyrocketing enrollments.

"There are schools that are incredibly overcrowded," said Phil Fox, the associate director of the Colorado Association of School Executives. "Citizens don't like that, parents don't like that, and businesses don't like that."

The Denver school system has told voters that its proposed $30 million property-tax increase is essential for education reforms tied to an end to busing for school desegregation. A federal court declared the district desegregated in September. (See Education Week, Sept. 20, 1995.)

Mayor Wellington E. Webb has endorsed the levy. Superintendent Irv Moskowitz has proposed spending the money it would raise on a reform plan that includes charter schools and year-round schools. The plan would also allow district officials to replace staff members in chronically poor-performing schools.

An Uphill Battle

Officials in Cincinnati and other Ohio districts blame much of their financial predicament on a state law that they say hamstrings their efforts to keep up with inflation.

The law, passed in response to rapid inflation during the 1970s, seeks to keep tax bills from rising as property values increase.

The law requires districts to offset increased property assessments by lowering property-tax rates so that revenue remains constant.

Gov. George V. Voinovich defended the law last month, telling journalists from around the state that districts are always free to ask voters for new levies to keep up with inflation.

But district officials complain that voters seldom are eager to raise their own taxes.

"We are still collecting the same dollar amount as we did 15 years ago," said Monica S. Curtis, a spokeswoman for the 50,000-student Cincinnati district. "That does not account for inflation or the rising costs of doing business."

Income Taxes Eyed

Some Ohio districts have turned to alternative forms of taxation in their efforts to keep up with rising costs.

Fourteen have placed proposals on the Nov. 7 ballot asking voters to approve or continue modest local income taxes levied on top of a state income tax. About 115 of the state's 611 districts have such taxes.

The 4,000-student school system in the small city of Delaware, near Columbus, is asking voters to approve a 0.75 percent income tax that would raise about $2.25 million a year.

Superintendent Don D. Dyck said last week that the district has pinned its hopes on an income tax because its rising property-tax rates were "just choking people."

"Property taxes--particularly for low-income or fixed-income people who own property--has just gone beyond what they can afford," Mr. Dyck said.

Without a new source of revenue, the district will face a $2 million deficit by June 1997, Mr. Dyck said.

Focus on Spending

In Mr. Dyck's district and elsewhere in Ohio, opponents of various tax increases argue that their school districts do not need new funds, and should focus instead on trimming fat.

Tom Brinkman Jr., the leader of Cincinnatians United Against Taxes and Spending, or CUTS, said he blames the district's generosity toward the local teachers' union for its financial trouble.

"The teachers' union has made out like bandits and gotten tremendous pay increases in the past five or six years," he said.

"We are saying 'enough is enough,"' Mr. Brinkman said, adding that he doubts the district would spend money from a tax increase wisely or use it to boost achievement.

The Cincinnati school system has asked voters to renew an existing 3.74-mill levy that generates about $19.4 million each year.

This year, the district already has had to cut expenditures by $31 million--laying off librarians, counselors, and some teachers--to balance its budget for the current fiscal year.

District officials have warned that if the levy fails, they will have to cut this year's $298 million budget by an additional $10 million.

They say they would be forced to eliminate transportation for high school students and drastically reduce expenditures for reading instructors, security personnel, maintenance, and school supplies.

Mr. Brandt, the superintendent, said a failure of the levy renewal would almost certainly lead to a state takeover of his district. (See Education Week, April 26, 1995.)

The Cincinnati district also has asked voters to approve a new, 5-mill levy to restore some programs and maintain current services. That levy would raise about $26 million annually by boosting the property taxes on a $75,000 home about $115 each year.

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