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Published: Sunday, 4/13/2003

Schools seek voter help

BY JIM SIELICKI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

METAMORA, Ohio - In 1989, the last time the Evergreen Local School District asked voters for more operating money, the 0.75 percent income tax squeaked through by a mere 23 votes.

The district, spread across 130-square miles of Fulton and Lucas counties, has kept its financial head above water in the ensuing 14 years, at least in part by pioneering the use of a new state law that allows schools to use income taxes to raise money.

But state funding cuts and a dismal financial forecast are pressuring school boards statewide to appeal to voters for tax increases during the May 6 primary election.

Looming deficits exacerbated by Ohio's budget problems and a spate of state-assisted construction projects pretty much guarantee that Ohio voters will face school tax issues each election cycle.

Evergreen is seeking a 0.5 percent increase to its income tax.

“In the four-county area, we've gone as long as anybody ... in terms of the last time [voters] were asked to approve a levy,” said Ken Jones, superintendent of the 1,300-student district.

Taking a page from its 1989 play book, the district again used an informal poll to determine which type of tax increase voters were likely to support.

“Our math students conducted a local survey poll. We randomly selected callers, we called 400 people ... and asked their preference to the type of tax levy they'd prefer,” Mr. Jones said.

Evergreen voters, he said, expressed three-to-one preference for an income tax.

In northwest Ohio last May, voters approved four of seven income tax issues. During the last five years, the overall statewide success rate in spring primaries was 63 percent, according to the Ohio Department of Education.

Other area districts also are asking voters to approve an income tax.

In Van Wert, school officials are seeking approval of a 0.75 percent income tax for operating expenses. The tax, which would expire after five years, would raise $1.7 million annually.

Superintendent Cathy Hoffman said the board chose an income tax because in 2001 voters approved a 7.2 mill property tax to help pay for a new high school and middle school campus.

To raise $1.7 million through a property tax, voters would have to approve a 7.7 mill operating levy, she said. Van Wert now collects 23.4 mills, she said.

The board decided to limit the tax to five years in the hope that the state will resolve its school funding issues by the time it expires, a rationale that other schools used when approving next month's ballot issues.

Fremont, facing a deficit for the 2003-2004 school year, will ask voters to increase their income tax by 1.25 percent for five years.

To trim the projected $2.3 million deficit, the board cut $635,000 in March and proposed more cuts totaling $1.15 million if the levy fails.

Matt Feasel, treasurer of Fremont City Schools, said the board chose an income tax this time after getting the message from previous defeats that property taxes are high enough.

“In the fall, our 3.9 mill request was soundly defeated,” he said. “The board of education decided that a real estate tax was not going to make it this year.”

The district's policy and finance committee voted earlier this month to eliminate the athletic director's position and fall sports for the 2003-2004 school year if the income tax fails next month.

Winter and spring sports could be axed if voters reject subsequent requests for tax increases.

The May tax issue is a combined 0.75 percent renewal and 0.50 percent increase that together would generate $6 million.

Even if it passes, the district, faces tough decisions, Mr. Feasel said.

“The collection period is so slow, that even if we pass it in May, there won't be any new money coming in until April, 2004,” Mr. Feasel said.

Construction or renovation of school facilities is the purpose of bond issues at six northwest Ohio school districts. The projects range from 0.8 mills to raise $2.5 million for Clyde-Green Springs Local School District to a 5.24 mill bond and tax levy to raise $42 million for Maumee City Schools.

Only the Clyde-Green Springs levy is not part of the Ohio Schools Facilities Commission matching program.

Todd Helms, superintendent for Clyde-Green Springs, said school board members were able to raised $1 million up front toward a new auditorium for the high school, and need only $2.5 million from voters.

That amounts to an additional $2.09 in property taxes for each $100,000 of property values, which the superintendent said should appeal to voters. “We have very good industry backing,” Mr. Helms said. “We've been well-funded.”

Lima, which in 1999 approved a state-matching bond issue for a $100 million project, is returning to voters for a 1.12-mill issue over 25 years to raise $4.7 million to close a gap caused by higher-than-anticipated expenses, Superintendent John McEwan said.

The Ohio Schools Facilities Commission is in its sixth year of providing money for school districts to replace or renovate aging buildings.

Spokesman Rick Savors said the agency has worked with 190 of Ohio's 612 school districts that are in the planning stages or beyond, while funding has been put into 143 of them.

Despite Ohio's funding problems, schools that haven't applied yet for a share of the money needn't worry about the well going dry, Mr. Savors said.

“I think, quite frankly, that a lot of people have asked about that, based on some very good, logical reasons,” he said. “We have a diverse enough funding system that we haven't seen a problem.”



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