Sunday, September 26, 2004

School levy activists compete for attention

By Cindy Kranz
Enquirer staff writer

At the Finneytown High School media center Wednesday, school board vice president Kevin Berlon (left) works with president Mark Besserman and student Anna Berlon, 7, to package information sheets about the upcoming Finneytown schools levy.
Among a cluttered field of candidates and issues on the Nov. 2 ballot are 19 school issues from four Greater Cincinnati counties.

It is a blessing - and a curse.

School districts don't have to worry about attracting voters to the polls during a presidential election year. Yet, as levy campaigns gear up, they have to compete with other political issues to get their messages across. As a result, some have changed their strategies.

"In past elections we've focused on mass mailings," said Sherri Holzman, co-chair of the Kings Local Schools' operating levy campaign. "We believe the public is overwhelmed with political mailings and most will go unread, straight to the recycling bin. In an effort to make sure our voters understand what the Kings levy is and is not, we will be taking our message door to door."

Here's a sampling of meetings and rallies focusing on school issues on the Nov. 2 ballot:

Grassroots Campaign Kickoff, 4-5:30 p.m. Thursday at Jordan Crossing, 7030 Reading Road, Suite 550, Bond Hill.

Edgewood officials have scheduled three more public forums for discussion. School administrators and board members will be on hand. All forums will begin at 7 p.m. at the Edgewood High School auditorium. Dates: Sept. 30, and Oct. 12 and 26.

Citizens for Accountability and Results in Education is distributing "Vote No on School Levy" yard signs at Morris Road and Dust Commander Drive in Fairfield Township from 1-3 p.m. today. The group will be selling T-shirts for $10 and will ask for signatures on a petition. Signs are also available from Robert Neeley at 939-0855 or Arnie Engel at 829-7840.
Rallies will be held from 1-3 p.m. Oct. 9 at Founders Park, Nilles Road and Hicks Boulevard, and 1-3 p.m. Oct. 10 at the Fairfield Township location.

Levy volunteer kick-off rally at 7 p.m. Monday at Kings High School.

The Community for a Secure Tomorrow levy committee will meet every Thursday at 6 p.m. until the election at the Madison Life Squad Building at State Route Rt. 122 and Mosiman Road in Madison Township.

The Reading Community Schools Tax Levy Committee's next meeting is 7 p.m. Monday in the Media Library at the Reading Junior/Senior High School.
Information: Superintendent Scott Inskeep, 554-1800, or Tom Bemmes, 563-7954.
The next Ross Spirit levy meeting is 7 p.m. Thursday in the Ross High School cafeteria.

Citizens for Three Rivers supporting the levy will hold three information sessions:
• 7-8 p.m. Monday at Addyston Municipal Building, 235 Main St., Addyston. A panel of residents and school officials will answer questions. State Reps. Steve Driehaus and Bill Seitz will attend.
• "The 59.5-Minute Information Session: Just for Seniors," 11 a.m. to noon Oct. 5 at Miami Township Senior Center, 8 N. Miami Ave., Cleves. . A panel of residents and school officials will answer questions.
• "The 59.5-Minute Information Session," 7-8 p.m., American Legion Hall, 29 E. State, Cleves.
A panel of residents and school officials will answer questions. State Reps. Steve Driehaus and Bill Seitz will attend.
Information: 941-4463 or 941-9470.
The levy campaign's goal is to make personal contact with every registered household in the district during October. More than 150 volunteers have committed to talking to their neighbors.

Personal contact also is the strategy at Reading, where the levy campaign is scheduling neighborhood coffee parties for eight to 10 people.

"It's not the most efficient way, but it's pretty darn effective," said levy chair Tom Bemmes.

More and more levy campaigns are adopting that approach.

Some might think districts have an advantage by being hidden among a slew of ballot choices, but Bemmes thinks otherwise.

"The days of 'let's sneak it through' are over. The anti-tax sentiment is so strong, people have to get out and sell it."

Meanwhile, the Winton Woods levy committee decided to order yellow-and-black yard signs that would stand out in a sea of blue Bush and Kerry signs.

All school districts will benefit from voter registration and voter turnout drives by the Democratic and Republican parties. Districts such as Winton Woods and Cincinnati Public, which have a majority of African-American students, will especially benefit from the Democrats' push to get African-Americans to the polls.

Districts also are buoyed by statistics that show school issues have among the highest percentage of passing rates on a presidential election ballot. Of 252 school issues on the ballot in Ohio during the 2000 presidential election, 188 passed - a 74.6 percentage approval rate. For the past 20 years, the passing rate for school issues in all November general elections is 54 percent.

But school officials still worry about being on the ballot with other money issues - city, township or county - that might force voters to pick one or two and discard others.

Citizens for Accountability and Results in Education, which has led the fight against Fairfield's last four school levy attempts, will be out in full force again. Arnold Engel, founder of the group, said the strategy is the same - presidential election or not.

"I think the No. 1 issue in our school district is the levy," Engel said. "There is more discussion about this than the presidential election year. People are going to be looking for information, and we're going to do pretty much the same thing."

That includes advertising in the local newspaper, holding rallies and distributing fliers and yard signs.

Brewster Rhoads, a Cincinnati political strategist, said voter turnout in some communities could be as high as 75 percent this November compared to 20 to 25 percent in other school issue elections this year.

That forces schools districts to appeal more to average voters.

"Your natural parent and employee and school alumni base represents, by definition, a far smaller percentage of the overall electorate that will come out this fall," Rhoads said. "There needs to be a message that resonates with a much broader cross-section of voters."

The message must be clear, simple and distinct, which is not an easy task. But, at least the school levy campaigns won't have to work to get out the vote. So they can focus on their messages.

The levy committee for Cincinnati Public Schools intends to do just that, said Kent Cashell, levy chairman.

"The key is, it's a renewal that won't raise your taxes," he said. "It's really about the basic funding for schools."


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