Friday, July 23, 2004

Educators swap vacations for levy campaigns

By Michael D. Clark
Enquirer staff writer

Phil Hackett (left), E.H. Greene Intermediate School principal, and Diane Slovin, Blue Ash, campaign for Sycamore Schools in Blue Ash.
The old joke about the three best parts of an educator's job being June, July and August makes Sycamore principal Phil Hackett chuckle, but only because it hasn't been true for years.

Increasing financial woes are forcing a near-record number of Ohio public-school districts to put tax issues before voters. That means more Greater Cincinnati school officials, including Hackett, find themselves working through what was once their summer vacation to campaign for tax increases that voters are often reluctant to approve.

Almost five times as many school tax issues (103) - will be on Ohio's Aug. 3 ballots than during the same time last year (23). Statewide, 2004 is shaping up to be another record year. Including August, the total is 235, on pace to top last year's 439. The record year was 1995, when 469 issues were decided.

Ohio, unlike Kentucky, requires its 614 public school districts to be funded primarily through local property taxes, which do not increase with inflation or higher property appraisals.

As a result - and more so in recent years because of the sluggish national economy and cuts in state funding - many Ohio school systems are finding it difficult to pay for school operations or new buildings. And they're returning to voters more often.

The eight local districts that are asking for more money next month know the odds are against them.

An analysis by the Ohio School Boards Association from 1994 to 2002 showed that August school levies have the lowest passage rate - 39.6 percent - compared to the three other election periods available in Ohio each year.

To improve their chances, local levy proponents have abandoned traditional 90-day efforts to rally voters in favor of more intense and novel year-round campaigning, including steps once considered unnecessary to rally voters.

Recently, after Hackett's regular summer-school workday at E.H. Greene Intermediate School, which began at 7 a.m., he found himself riding around Blue Ash neighborhoods past 10 p.m. with a handful of other Sycamore school employees.

The usual vacation plans of summers past have been cut short for Hackett - a 31-year-veteran of public schools - and other volunteer campaigners. They are spending almost a dozen summer evenings riding in a loaned recreational vehicle dubbed the "Levy Mobile" festooned with balloons and pro-levy banners.

Supporters reach into their own pockets to help cover campaign expenses: T-shirts, buttons, bumper stickers, balloons, Popsicles and gasoline.

Stopping periodically, Hackett and others scurry up to residents walking their dogs, doing yard work or just taking a stroll to lobby for Sycamore's 7.9- mill operating levy.

"This tax issue is so crucial for us, and this is what you have to do anymore. This is a much more personal sort of campaign, and that means you have to get out with the people," Hackett said.

Danny Segal, a resident of Blue Ash's Chimney Hill subdivision and a Sycamore school parent, watched Hackett and other school supporters from his front yard as they stopped cars and hustled after residents.

"To see a principal out here campaigning and giving his time when he could be on vacation, it shows you how much and how hard they have to campaign," Segal said.

Scott Ebright, spokesman for the Ohio School Boards Association, said year-around campaigning has become the norm for Ohio school systems.

Many districts, such as financially troubled Kings in Warren County and Three Rivers in western Hamilton County, both of which have cut millions from their budgets after recent levy defeats, also are mounting aggressive campaigns. They have numerous public meetings at which school officials spend hours explaining the need for school levies.

"You have to now operate a school district like you are constantly on the ballot," Ebright said.

John Frye, superintendent of Milford schools in Clermont County, agreed.

"As a result of changes in school funding and changes in the economy ... levy campaigning has become a year-round affair in the last five years," he said.

And Three Rivers Schools Treasurer Scott Hiles echoed that "campaigning is now a continuous process."

The 2,200-student district has been reeling since 76 percent of voters in March defeated a proposed 12-mill operating levy. That forced district officials to cut $1.8 million in teachers and staffers and the elimination of bus service for high school students. District officials also began campaigning for another smaller levy that could be up to 6.85 mills for the November ballot.

Hiles, an 18-year veteran of Ohio public schools, explained that longer, more involved campaigns also have been prompted by the increased complexity of school financing and the public's growing interest in how their tax dollars are being spent.

"School financing is very difficult to explain, and we're being more specific, and more accountable, because that's what the public is looking for," Hiles said.

Some voters are actively working for more accountability - and against some school levies.

Del Landis, a former Kings board member and now a top official with the northern chapter of the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST), said the group opposes excessive spending, or seeking tax increases exceeding the inflation rates.

Landis, like increasingly active anti-tax advocates in Three Rivers, is campaigning against Kings' 5.9-mill levy planned for the November ballot, and his North COAST chapter is actively battling other school levies in Fairfield and Edgewood schools in Butler County.

He complains that Kings officials "are having trouble getting their priorities straight" in seeking a 5.9-mill levy rather than smaller one.

But veteran Kings school board member Roger Jones dismisses COAST's efforts as "misinformation" and cites such anti-tax groups as another reason why school levy campaigns continue - in one form or another - all year. Jones blamed COAST for contributing to the overwhelming defeat of Kings' bond issuelast year.

"COAST didn't hesitate to prey on the community's worst fears. They went door-to-door telling anyone who would listen that the district was wasteful ... and they exploited the fear of those on fixed incomes," Jones said. "We can no longer get by on a few yard signs and a mass mailing. This information must be disclosed in an open and voter-friendly format."

Anita Dock, a Sycamore school parent in Blue Ash's Carpenter's Green community, was recently drawn to the street curb by the Levy Mobile, and she came away grateful for the unusual method school supporters used to deliver levy information virtually to her door step.

"I love it. It's definitely meaningful and helpful," Dock said.

Fellow Sycamore school parent Diane Slovin, a campaign coordinator riding on the Levy Mobile, lamented the fading of traditional shorter, easier school campaigns of the past.

"Where'd our summer go? But it's so important anymore, to all of us, to work long and hard and get this levy passed," she said.

August school issues

Greater Cincinnati school tax issues on the Aug. 3 ballot:

Butler County

Edgewood Schools: 6.9-mill continuing levy that would raise $2.49 million annually for day-to-day operations. Cost: $211 annually on a $100,000 house.

Fairfield Schools: 6.9-mill continuing levy that would raise $9.1 million annually for daily operations. Cost: $211 on a $100,000 house.

Clermont County

Clermont Northeastern Schools: 4.9-mill permanent improvement levy expected to raise $1.2 million annually to pay for textbooks, upgrading technology and building/grounds maintenance. Cost: $150 on a $100,000 house.

Williamsburg Schools: 6.4-mill, five-year, levy that includes renewing 2.8 mills and adding 3.6 mills. The levy would raise $651,116. Cost: net increase of $110 annually on a $100,000 house.

Hamilton County

Mount Healthy Schools: Five-year, 1.54-mill emergency levy renewal that would raise $500,000 a year. Taxes would not increase. Money would be used to fund existing programs.

Sycamore Schools: 7.9-mill continuing operating levy that would generate an additional $12.6 million annually for daily operations. Taxes would increase about $242 annually on a $100,000 house.

Winton Woods Schools: An 8.95-mill combination levy that includes 7.95 mills that would raise $3.9 million annually, and a 1-mill permanent improvement levy that would raise $495,000 annually. Cost: $274 on a $100,000 house.

Warren County

Franklin Schools: 9.79-mill continuing operating levy that would provide $3.9 million annually. Most of that money would be used for day-to-day operations, but 2 mills, or just under $800,000, would be used to pay for windows, fire alarms and safety items. Taxes would increase $300 annually on a $100,000 house.

Franklin Schools: A 4.73-mill bond issue that would provide $29.8 million to add classrooms at elementary schools and renovations at the high school. The cost to the owner of a $100,000 house would be $144 annually. Also: a 0.19-mill bond issue that would provide $1.2 million to renovate the stadium. Taxes would increase about $6 on a $100,000 house.


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