School & District Management

Local Voters Decide Tax, Governance Questions

By Karla Scoon Reid — November 09, 2004 4 min read
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Voters in two Ohio cities sent very different messages to their school districts on Election Day.

In Cincinnati, 59 percent of the voters on Nov. 2 backed a renewal of a five-year property-tax levy. The levy generates $65.2 million in operating money annually for the school district, or about 15 percent of its budget.

But in Cleveland, voters soundly defeated a property-tax increase that would have generated $68 million in new money for the schools. The money would have helped restore some of the teaching jobs and programs cut last June, when the school board voted to reduce the budget by $100 million, to $600 million for fiscal 2005.

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The Ohio decisions came as voters in communities across the nation cast ballots last week affecting school districts’ leadership and budgets on a day marked by the high drama of a presidential race.

In Detroit, the long-simmering issue of who will control the public schools was settled. Voters defeated a ballot measure to give the city’s mayor the authority to appoint a chief executive officer for the district. The measure, rejected by 64.5 percent to 35.5 percent, was strongly backed by Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick.

The ballot question would have given the district’s CEO the authority to make academic and financial decisions, relegating the elected school board to an advisory role.

Return to Elected Board

Instead, in 2006, the 151,000-student district will have an elected, 11-member school board that will hire the superintendent.

The return to an elected board with traditional powers has been a heartfelt local issue since the state of Michigan took over the poorly performing Detroit school system in 1999. At that time, the elected board was replaced with one whose members were largely appointed by the mayor.

“It’s pretty obvious the whole issue never got beyond a voters’ rights issue,” said Greg Handel, the senior director for workforce development at the Detroit Regional Chamber, which supported the proposed change in governance.

Cincinnati’s tax-levy-renewal campaign appeared to be in jeopardy after the city’s most influential business and religious leaders pulled their support last month. They cited what they said were the school board’s micromanaging style and unresolved questions about the 39,000-student district’s finances. (“Cincinnati Leaders Divided Over School Levy,” Oct. 27, 2004.)

Levy supporters waged a $125,000 grassroots campaign without the backing of the Cincinnati Business Committee, a coalition of the city’s largest employers, which had funneled up to $1.5 million into past levy efforts. Two school board members and the city’s major newspapers also opposed the renewal.

To counter the criticism, supporters emphasized that the levy renewal would not increase taxes.

“[The levy’s opponents] were willing to hold our children hostage,” said Susan Taylor, the president of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. She said all the parties involved must now “set aside their egos” to resolve their differences.

Money Issues

Although Cleveland’s tax increase faced no organized opposition, the city’s struggling economy was thought to have contributed to the 55 percent to 45 percent defeat.

Without the $68 million generated by the tax increase, the 67,000-student district could face more budget cuts in fiscal 2006.

In Multnomah County, Ore., 52 percent of voters rejected a ballot measure that would have repealed a three-year, 1.25 percent increase in the personal-income tax. The tax hike, approved last year by Portland-area voters to generate money for schools, social services, and public-safety programs, raised about $67 million in 2003-04.

Shannon Campion, a Portland-based organizer with Stand for Children, an advocacy group that opposed the repeal, described the victory as bittersweet because the income-tax increase is not a permanent solution to schools’ money problems.

Voters in the 113,000-student Pinellas County, Fla., school district approved a property-tax increase that will generate $26 million annually, most of which will be used to boost teachers’ salaries. The measure, approved by 64 percent of the voters, won widespread support among residents of the district, which includes St. Petersburg, said Jade Moore, the executive director of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association, a 5,000-member affiliate of the National Education Association.

In San Diego, three new school board members considered to be willing to challenge Superintendent Alan D. Bersin’s ambitious reform plans were elected.

Terry Pesta, the president of the San Diego Education Association, a 9,000-member affiliate of the NEA, said Mr. Bersin has relied on three of the five current board members to pass his proposals. But two incumbents who have routinely supported the superintendent decided not to run, as did one of Mr. Bersin’s most vocal critics.

“The Alan Bersin rubber-stamp majority are gone,” said Mr. Pesta, whose union has often been at odds with the superintendent.

In San Francisco, voters rejected by 51 percent to 49 percent a measure that would have permitted noncitizens to vote in local school board elections.

Assistant Editor Catherine Gewertz and Staff Writer John Gehring contributed to this report.

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