Cleveland Voters Resoundingly Defeat Tax Levy for Schools

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Cleveland voters last week emphatically turned down a tax levy that backers said would improve the schools, bring in new state money, and eventually result in an end to mandatory busing.

In a low turnout, just 37 percent of voters backed the proposed 12.9 mill levy.

Opponents of the levy, who waged a vigorous media campaign, warned that the district administration would squander the money or that the new funding would be used to pay for, rather than fight, mandatory busing of students for racial purposes.

"The levy was not for kids,'' asserted Irving Chudner, the chairman of Citizens Against Unfair Taxation, which helped organize the effort against the tax initiative.

If the levy had been approved, the taxes on a $50,000 home were expected to increase by about $200 a year.

District officials and school board members complained that levy opponents were holding them accountable for the sins of their predecessors.

"We had to overcome a large negative, and that was perceptions of past board operations,'' Lawrence A. Lumpkin, the school board president, said.

Current board members, most of whom campaigned for office as reformers, had been counting on the money raised by the levy to pay for their plans to settle the district's long-running desegregation case and implement a sweeping school-reform plan called "Vision 21.''

The board spent $500,000 in its campaign for the levy.

'Harsh' Impact Seen

The impact of the levy's defeat "will be harsh,'' Mr. Lumpkin said.

The tax increase had been expected to raise an additional $63 million annually.

Now, Mr. Lumpkin said, the school system faces a deficit of about that much in the coming school year, and will likely have to make cuts that "will affect every corner of the district.''

Moreover, Mr. Lumpkin noted, the district has not passed a major operating levy since 1983 and has had to borrow itself "into a major hole'' to keep pace with rising costs. Without the funds from the new levy, he said, the district risks being placed under state receivership.

The defeat of the levy means the loss not just of local tax revenue, but of a substantial infusion of state money as well.

As part of a proposed settlement in the desegregation case, the state had offered to provide the system with $295 million over seven years, provided the district was able to match all but $20 million of that. (See Education Week, March 16, 1994.)

If no matching funds are raised, however, the agreement calls for the state to pay only $20 million.

The district probably will have more opportunities to try to raise the matching funds, however. The proposed settlement, which still awaits the approval of U.S. District Judge Frank J. Battisti, does not require the district to pass the levy the first time around.

District officials said they planned to take the levy before voters again. But they indicated that they have not yet set a date for their next attempt.

"We are currently at the drawing board,'' Mr. Lumpkin explained.

Vol. 13, Issue 33

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