Sunday, October 22, 2000

Edgewood


Levy grade: C+

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        LEVY REQUEST: A 4.9-mill continuing operating levy to raise $1.67 million annually. It would cost the owner of a home assessed at $100,000 an extra $150 a year.

        OTHER LEVIES: An $18.9 million bond issue at 3.69 mills passed in 1997 to expand several elementary schools and the high school and renovate others; a 1991 bond issue built a new middle school and expanded others. The last operating levy (about 5 mills and continuing) was approved 13 years ago, in 1987.


GRADING THE LEVIES
Suburban schools
By the numbers
Lakota
Little Miami
Loveland
Norwood
Talawanda
        IF LEVY PASSES: It will pay for rising operating expenses for expanded buildings, more teachers, transportation and programs for additional 120 or more new students a year; provide 4 percent raises for teachers and staff, and more.

        IF LEVY FAILS: Budget cuts would begin second semester this year, including personnel cuts for next school year. Voters likely will be asked again early next year.

        Our recommendation: This once-quiet Butler County community is on the move. Acres of farmland around Trenton are rapidly becoming subdivisions for families with children.

        Every year for the past five, more than 120 new students show up at Edgewood schools. That means hiring 17 to 18 more teachers and staff, and constantly building, expanding or renovating space for them.

        Residents are paying for the buildings with two bond levies passed in the 1990s. But they haven't had to pass a levy for operating money since 1987. New construction has brought some extra money; businesses and industry pay more than 60 percent of the local school taxes. Edgewood was blessed, too, with an extra $3 million tax settlement in the 1990s from Miller Brewery. State audits ruled the company had underpaid its inventory taxes.

        The annual operating budget is growing about 8 percent a year, but Edgewood schools have operated for more than a decade on the 1987 levy money (which does not increase with inflation), limited dollars from new construction and state aid, plus the extra income from Miller Brewery.

        In 1989, the school board withdrew an operating levy from the ballot just before election day because Miller agreed to pay $1.9 million in back taxes to the schools and then another $1.1 million three years ago.

        It's hard to be upset over that kind of windfall, but the timing and uncertainty created some public skepticism whether or not district leaders knew the money was coming and were forthright about revenues.

        Since then, attorneys examining changes in state inventory auditing for Miller advise Edgewood school officials not to anticipate any more windfalls.

        Meanwhile, enrollment keeps growing faster than revenues. Edgewood enrollment growth exceed the new state cap on aid increases, so the district is short about $1 million they'd otherwise get from Ohio.

        Edgewood leaders say they need a different financial script if the schools are to maintain a solid reputation, meet newcomers' demands and compete with neighboring districts.

        This levy is a wake-up call for a changing community.

        Homeowners get a good deal for what they pay. About $800 of a $34,000 income goes to school taxes in Edgewood. This is much lower than some Butler County districts, even though Edgewood's average incomes rank somewhere in the middle and are rising as new families move in.

        District officials do a good job explaining how Ohio taxes work or don't work in the district. Residents should call and ask.

        They make a reasoned case for why this levy is needed. The amount is reasonable, given the community's relative ability to pay. But we urge the many newcomers to inquire and find out exactly how the new money will be spent and what long-range plans and priorities are prepared for many changes ahead. Absent that, this levy is a fair toss-up for voters.