Ohio Schools Brace for Fallout From Levy Defeats

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The impact of 77 school-tax-levy defeats out of 103 on local Ohio ballots a month ago is settling in across the state, as schools begin the year amid teacher layoffs, decreased bus service, and larger class sizes.

Administrators and school board members in districts that came up short at the polls on Aug. 3 hope that as the new fiscal reality sinks in, voters will have a change of heart when many of the same tax measures reappear on their ballots this fall.

"We’ve had school districts that have had to cut out all fall programs—no band, no volleyball, no school newspaper, no school government," said Fred Pausch, the director of legislative services for the Ohio School Boards Association in Columbus. "Here in Ohio, you have communities divided by this issue."

Of 103 school tax proposals on the recent ballot—more measures than in the last four August special elections combined—only 26 passed. The 25 percent passing rate is the lowest for school tax measures since 1998.

"The issue isn’t one of mistrust," said J. Kevin Kelley, the president of the Parma city school board, which saw its tax levy fail. "People feel taxed out. They’re really feeling the effect of the economy."

Mr. Pausch points to the state’s school funding formula, which in four separate court rulings was declared unconstitutional, as the culprit. ("Ohio Court Declares End to DeRolph School Funding Case," May 28, 2003.)

School funding relies too heavily on property taxes, he argued. "Until the funding formula is overhauled, districts will continue to rely on local taxpayers," he said.

Property-Tax Burden

Last year, Gov. Bob Taft, a Republican, formed a 35- member statewide task force to recommend a new school funding system. The panel’s recommendations will be considered in November in time for planning the state’s 2006-07 biennial budget.

Joan Platz, the education specialist for the League of Women Voters in Ohio, said because school levies don’t include inflationary growth, districts are forced to return repeatedly to voters. That necessity often translates into voter fatigue, Ms. Platz said. She added that voters also end up taking out their frustrations about the poor economy on one of the only increased costs they can oppose: school tax levies.

With Ohio losing more than 120,000 manufacturing jobs in the past few years, some voters can’t afford higher property-tax rates, said Scott A. Pullins, the chairman and chief executive officer of the Ohio Taxpayers Association, an advocacy group in Columbus that favors tax limits. He added that some voters believe that school districts don’t need the extra money.

"Superintendents would like to get a blank check," Mr. Pullins said, adding that he would oppose any attempt to limit the opportunities voters have to consider increasing tax levies or renewing them. "I think voters would like to continue to have their say in the process," he said. Still, Mr. Pullins said he believes that low voter turnout probably had the greatest effect on the failure of the school tax measures in August. With many people on vacation, only the "hard core" voters went to the polls, he said. Those voters, he added, are often fiscally conservative retirees who are against raising taxes.

A Third Try

This fall, the Parma school board will ask the city’s voters for a third time to support an operating levy that would generate $11.6 million annually. The tax measure failed by a ratio of 2- to-1 in August. Voters opposed a similar measure in March.

Earlier this summer, the 13,000-student district south of Cleveland cut the jobs of 104 staff members, including 50 teachers. The district adopted the state minimum of providing transportation solely to students who live at least two miles away from school. The district had been busing children living 1½ miles from their schools. The impact was drastic: School bus service went from transporting 7,000 students in 2003-04 to 2,300 students this fall.

Mr. Kelley, the school board president in Parma, said that without passage of the school tax levy, the additional cost-cutting measures were necessary to avoid a projected $21 million shortfall in the district’s $100 million budget in 2005-06. He said Parma might finally secure a victory at the polls in November after residents come to grips with larger class sizes and curtailed bus service at their schools.

Mr. Kelley himself faced those fiscal realities when school started last month.

While he lives in a designated "high traffic zone" that continues to receive school bus service because of concerns about student safety amid dense automobile traffic in the area, he asked that his own children not receive such service. The father of four school-age children now faces an academic year when those children won’t be boarding a bus to school.

"I wanted to be in the same boat as everyone else," Mr. Kelley said. He added, "My wife isn’t very happy with me right now."

Vol. 24, Issue 1, Pages 25, 31

Published in Print: September 1, 2004, as Ohio Schools Brace for Fallout From Levy Defeats
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