Tuesday, August 10, 2004

School levy renewal on ballot

Vote is 5-2; board majority says money is needed for programs

By Jennifer Mrozowski
Enquirer staff writer

The Cincinnati school board voted Monday to place a $65.2 million, 5-year levy renewal on the November ballot despite threats from two board members to campaign against it.

The vote was 5-2. Board members Melanie Bates and Rick Williams opposed the November levy, saying the board should first demonstrate that it has been responsible with taxpayer dollars.

Catherine Ingram, chairwoman of the board's finance committee, and other board members said the levy is essential to continue programs that have produced gains in student achievement.

Superintendent Alton Frailey on Friday announced that the school system had shed its "academic emergency" label - the worst of five state rankings for student test scores, attendance and graduation rates. The district held that label the previous two school years, but recently moved up one category to "academic watch" based on the 2003-04 school results.

"If we don't get the renewal approved, we're cutting into existing programs," board member John Gilligan said.

"The cuts would be very substantial."

The levy is a renewal and would cost no additional tax dollars. The owner of a $100,000 market value home now pays $299 a year for the levy.

The decision to place the renewal on the ballot comes less than a week after voters rejected about three-fourths of the 103 school levies on ballots across the state.

Frailey remained silent during the board's debate on the tax levy Monday.

The district's treasurer has said district schools would have to cut $32.5 million from their budgets for the 2005-06 school year if the levy fails.

Bates and Williams have said they will campaign against it unless the school system reforms what they consider to be dysfunctional internal operations that prevent the district from being entirely effective.

"Timing is everything and this isn't the time," Bates said.

For example, Bates and Williams support giving the superintendent more authority. They say the board takes up too much of his time with petty information requests.

They also want the district to approve a system that pays teachers based on their students' performance. During recent contract negotiations with teachers, the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers agreed to study different ways to pay teachers, but the contract did not include linking pay with performance.

Board president Florence Newell said she couldn't justify making the cuts if the levy fails, especially since many of the district's children live in poverty.

"They deserve the best education we can provide," she said.

Cincinnati school district voters last approved a levy for district operations in 2000. The 6-mill levy cost the owner of a $100,000 home $177 a year in new taxes.

Voters in May 2003 approved a $480 million bond issue, but that money is being used for construction of 66 new and renovated buildings and contracts related to that project. Owners of a home valued at $100,000 pay an additional $135 in property taxes annually for that issue.

Some members of the public urged the board to support the levy.

"We're worried a failed levy will destroy the educational progress," said Chot Van Ausdall, president of the Cincinnati Parents for Public Schools.

The board also voted 5-2 to come up with a new process for selecting a firm to oversee the district's construction project, with Bates and Williams voting against.

The board previously voted against a proposal by Frailey to have a group of firms oversee the project at a cost of $16.4 million over the decade-long plan.

Instead, the district will convene an ad-hoc committee, composed of two board members, the treasurer, and two appointees of the superintendent, to determine the selection process.

A new proposal is due by Sept. 27.


E-mail jmrozowski@enquirer.com

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