Thursday, August 5, 2004

Simmering anger hurt tax levies

School issues offer a rare chance for voters' voice

By Cindy Kranz and Michael D. Clark
Enquirer staff writers
and Sue Kiesewetter, Enquirer contributor

Tracy Sabo, a stylist at Trendz Spa in Blue Ash, works with client Jackie Beck. Sabo, who moved to the Sycamore school district for the schools, was disappointed that Tuesday's levy failed.
BLUE ASH - Tracy Sabo moved to the Sycamore school district from Clermont County last year so her special-needs child could take advantage of some of the district's specialized instructional programs.

She didn't suspect that Sycamore's quarter-century winning streak for passing school levies would soon end in an overwhelming defeat.

"I was shocked because I thought for sure it was going to pass," Sabo said Wednesday during a break working as a stylist at Trendz Spa in Blue Ash.

"I thought people here would care more about children and their property values. But I guess many people thought the district had too much money already," Sabo said.

Throughout Greater Cincinnati, school administrators and voters tried to figure out why so many school levies went down in Tuesday's special election. August is historically the most difficult month to pass school levies, and Sycamore was not alone in the losing column.

Eight of 10 school issues failed in Greater Cincinnati. Only Mount Healthy and Williamsburg levies won.

"We want to have a very, very fine school district that does its job, that offers a superior education and all that goes with it. It's just a question of how we get there from here. The message is loud and clear that the electorate has stated its wishes to the school district."
- George Rehfeldt, Montgomery, member of Citizens for Responsible Fiscal Management

"The levy was a good thing, and I thought it was going to pass, but the millage was probably too high."
- Vania Wilkes, Sycamore school parent

"Nobody likes to pay more taxes, and besides your local public schools, what other possible tax increases do you get to vote on? Darn few."
- Charles Shreve, Clermont Northeastern Superintendent, on why voters are defeating levies

"A lot of people are very mad, very angry. What are you going to do that's different? You're putting the same square peg in a round hole. You keep doing the same thing and you keep getting the same results."'
- Hall Thompson, who voted in favor of Fairfield's levy

Of the 103 school issues on ballots statewide, about a quarter of them passed. Almost half of those that passed - including Mount Healthy's - were levy renewals that didn't raise taxes.

"So many issues went down," said Betty McGary, deputy director of the Butler County Board of Elections. "So many of our citizens literally have to make choices - especially the elderly - whether to pay property taxes or buy their medications."

Conversations yielded some answers about the mood of voters: It's the economy. Anti-tax advocates were well-organized. It's a vote of no confidence in school leaders. Seniors on fixed incomes can't afford it. Neither can families who are strapped for cash. It's one of the few taxes over which voters have a say.

Sycamore resident Tom Budde has five grown children who went through the community's public school system, and he has five grandchildren in the schools now. But he voted against the 7.9-mill levy, complaining that Sycamore school officials "were asking for too much money without providing a really good reason why they needed that money."

"Sycamore has a declining enrollment and yet they wanted more money. Plus, they are spending about $3,000 more per student than neighboring districts, such as Indian Hill and Madeira, which are doing just as well academically. And add to that it was a permanent levy, and you have most of the reasons why it failed," Budde said.

"I'd be more inclined to vote for a 3- or 4-mill levy with a time limit attached to it," he said.

George Rehfeldt, a member of the Citizens for Responsible Fiscal Management that opposed the Sycamore levy, doesn't buy any argument that the levy lost because of the economy.

"In my mind, this is a vote of no confidence in the Sycamore school administration and board. I don't think you can read it any other way. It was an enormous margin (61 percent against). The people have said with a large vote that they want changes going forward."

It was Sycamore's first levy attempt since 1998.

In Fairfield, ballot issues that would have increased school taxes have failed four times in three years. Tuesday's vote was 52 percent against to 48 percent in favor.

"I think people who voted it down don't want to pay more taxes. The economy seems to be getting better, but people have more expenses," said Lisa O'Brien, who voted in favor of Fairfield's levy.

She said she is saddened by the divisiveness in the community over school funding. Each levy attempt brings more instances of sign destruction, harassment and, in this election, an investigation by the Butler County Board of Elections.

"Our kids are seeing too much animosity among people instead of seeing people coming together trying to find a solution," O'Brien said.

Lifelong Fairfield resident and Fairfield High School graduate Stephen Barrett sees it another way. "I am the silent majority until you step on my toes, and they stepped on my toes," Barrett said of school administrators, the board of education and teachers.

"I have total and utmost contempt for the management of the school system and the mismanagement of our funds. They work for us. We don't work for them."

He said he is tired of the arrogance of educators and lack of willingness on the school board to negotiate tough with teachers when it comes to salary increases.

"Teacher contracts expire (this month),"Barrett said. "They have the opportunity to build the trust of the community in negotiating. Are they going to pander to teachers again?"

Tom Durbin, superintendent of Clermont County's Williamsburg Local School District, home of one of few measures that won Tuesday, said it's sad that so few school issues passed statewide.

"All over the state of Ohio, I think people just look at it as their one opportunity they can say no. I don't think people are saying your school is bad. It's a chance for people to say, 'I'm not paying any more money.'"

It's time, Durbin said, that people demand a change in the school funding system.

"It's going to take the communities to get mad. It's going to take the voters to say, 'We're tired of this. Either do something, or you're out of office.'"

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