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Published: 1/19/2013

Finance panel rejects new-money request; 6.5 mills advised for TPS levy attempt

BY NOLAN ROSENKRANS
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Toledo Public Schools will ask voters to approve a levy this year, but likely won’t ask for any new money — at least for now.

The Toledo Board of Education’s finance committee voted Friday to recommend to the full board that a special election be held May 7 to renew the district’s operating levy.

The five-year levy is for 6.5 mills and generates about $13 million a year for the district. It was last approved by voters in 2008 with about 61 percent of the vote, and it runs out at the end of the calendar year.

Committee members were presented with several options for possible levy requests this year, including ballot questions in May, August, or during the November general election, or for going for a new levy, a replacement levy, or a renewal and new money levy at the same time.

The decision comes just months after voters rejected a new 4.9-mill, 10-year levy that would have generated $13.3 million annually. Because Toledo Public Schools’ budget is balanced through this year, there are no plans for immediate cuts because of the levy failure, but the district projects future deficits even with its current operating levy. If TPS cannot persuade voters to renew its current operating levy, immediate cuts likely would result, officials said.

“Given the reductions and losses [in state and local funding] we are taking already ... to add [a renewal loss] on top of that would just be absolutely devastating,” TPS Treasurer Matt Cleland said.

Board members are faced with both philosophical and tactical questions related to levies this year. A campaign for a new-money levy at the same time as a renewal levy could confuse voters, finance committee members said, and the odds of a new-money levy passing seem long at best since TPS has been given a string of defeats at the ballot box.

A new-money levy campaign could further erode public trust in TPS, since a performance audit — meant in part to find savings and show taxpayers that public money is spent wisely by the district — is just getting started.

“I think we owe that to the taxpayer,” board member Bob Vasquez said of waiting for the audit results.

The district’s administrative cabinet recommended only a renewal levy, and for the May 7 date. Waiting for the November ballot would give TPS only one crack at the renewal, since the levy runs out just weeks later. Failure to pass the levy in November likely would mean immediate program reductions, cuts Mr. Cleland said would be “tremendous.” And failure to pass a renewal levy would mean all future requests would be for new-money levies, which are traditionally harder to pass.

“There is a lot of risk here,” Mr. Cleland said, “and I don’t think we should put all our eggs in one basket, that being November.”

A decision is needed now on a levy question date, since there is a Feb. 6 filing deadline for a May 7 special election.

Not everyone at the meeting agreed with the finance committee’s decision. For starters, a special election will cost about $200,000, which would come from the district’s general fund. Steven Flagg, a public school advocate and frequent TPS critic, questioned whether TPS could raise enough private campaign funds if it does not win in May and runs a second campaign in November.

Mr. Flagg also warned that failure during the May election, tied so close TPS’ last levy defeat, could create a “cycle of levy defeat.”

Meanwhile, John McAvoy, a board member with the Northwest Ohio Conservative Coalition who pushed for a performance audit, argued that TPS should wait until after it implemented expected savings from the audit and after union negotiations are complete.

“I think a lot of people will be looking at your negotiations,” he said.

The full board meets Tuesday and will vote on what type of levy to place on the ballot and when.

Contact Nolan Rosenkrans at: nrosenkrans@theblade.com or 419-724-6086.



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