Schools across Ohio still seeking tax hikes in election; about 200 districts are on ballot


CINCINNATI — There have been plenty of changes for Ohio schools this year, but one thing remains the same: Many of them are asking voters to approve tax increases.

From Ayersville Schools, home of the Pilots in northwest Ohio, to Southern Schools, home of the Hustlin’ Purple Tornadoes in the rural southeast, nearly a third of Ohio’s 600-plus public school districts have levies, bonds or income tax hikes on Tuesday’s ballots. That continues the trend of recent years, even though school funding has been overhauled amid other education changes.

The state budget approved during the summer increases overall school funding over the next two years, and part of Gov. John Kasich’s schools plan is a $250 million Straight A Fund to reward education innovation with grants. Meanwhile, schools are also receiving cuts from the tens of millions in taxes from Ohio’s four new casinos.

But school officials say many districts are still trying to recover from earlier state funding cuts, reduced property tax revenues, the end of federal stimulus funds and continued voter reluctance after the recession to approve levies. The majority of new school issues get rejected, and districts often make multiple trips to the ballot.

Starting this election, property owners will no longer get rollbacks totaling 12.5 percent on new levies under a change approved this summer by Ohio lawmakers.

“The conventional wisdom is that it will make it more difficult to pass issues,” said Damon Asbury, legislative services director for the Ohio School Boards Association. “We won’t really know until after the election.”

Large levies continue to draw spirited campaigns by both sides. Some conservative groups say the schools can still make cuts in staff and teacher salaries and benefits and tighten up elsewhere.

Lakota Schools, one of Ohio’s largest districts with some 17,000 students in suburbs north of Cincinnati, is trying again to gain passage of a levy after three rejections.

School leaders say they have cut annual spending by nearly $21 million, and the levy would help pay for technology upgrades, advanced course work and security improvements while lowering activity participation fees and partially restoring some services such as busing for young children. The school said total revenues are far below 2010 levels even with the bump in state funding.

“We are always told to reduce our spending, manage our money wisely and live within our means,” Superintendent Karen Mantia says on the district’s website. “I am proud to say that we are doing all three of those things.”

But developer Bob Hutsenpiller, of the NoLakota group, said the district is able to offer good educations without additional spending that is a burden for taxpayers, especially older ones like him whose children are grown.

While he agreed that highly rated academic schools such as Lakota’s help communities, he said higher taxes can chase people away.

“We’re seeing the other side of it,” he said. “There’s a fine line that you do need to walk.”

The school district says the levy would cost the owner of a $100,000 home $16 a month. NoLakota says most homes in the district are worth considerably more, and a typical tax bite would be about $360 a year.