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Central Ohio school levies failed miserably in Tuesday’s primary. What went wrong?

Central Ohio school levies failed miserably in Tuesday's primary. What went wrong?
Tuesday was a rough night for school districts in the greater Columbus area.

In central Ohio, six districts – Olentangy Local Schools, Heath City Schools, Fairbanks Local Schools, Madison-Plains Local Schools, North Fork Local Schools and Teays Valley Local Schools – all had issues on the ballot to renovate and expand existing buildings or construct new ones entirely.

And each of them failed badly Tuesday night, according to unofficial election results.

So what went wrong, and what’s next for central Ohio districts?

Central Ohio joins statewide districts in failing new money asks

Central Ohio schools weren’t alone in having voters reject their requests for new money. Statewide, only 17% of asks for new money were approved approved by voters on Tuesday, according to Jeff Chambers, spokesperson for the Ohio School Boards Association.

One of the major factors, school administrators say, was a record increase in property valuations last year in central Ohio.

“(Reappraisals are) creating that uncertainty in voters mind — and certainly one that we can understand,” North Fork Superintendent Scott Hartley said. “Obviously we’re disappointed, but we certainly understand it.”

Teays Valley Superintendent Kyle Wolfe also said the reappraisals of homes in the district drove negative voter turnout for the district Tuesday.

More: Historic property value jumps to lead to tax spikes for many central Ohio rural residents

Heath City Schools Superintendent Trevor Thomas said when property values increase sharply, “we obviously have to appreciate the stress it places” on the community. Until Tuesday, he said, Heath schools has not had an unsuccessful levy since 2006.

Paul Imhoff, government relations director for the Buckeye Association of School Administrators, said it is “a difficult time” to ask about property tax increases for school districts.

Additionally, Imhoff said general elections tend to fare better on average for school district ballot issues compared to primary elections.

“Primary elections are always challenging,” Imhoff said.

Districts failed levy for second, third time

Some districts in central Ohio were also handed their second — or third — loss in its attempt to raise money for construction.

Madison Plains Local School District, which serves nearly the entire southern half of Madison County and a small portion of Franklin County, was seeking approval of a 5.4-mill bond issue that would have raised $55.36 million to replace the district’s aging campus and build a new pre-K though grade 12 building. The request for construction was rejected Tuesday for a third time.

Last May, the district had sought voter approval of a 9.9-mill, 37-year property tax levy to fund the district’s $63,047,000 local share of the project. Voters rejected that measure 56% to 44%, causing the district to reassess and put a smaller $55 million ask on the November ballot, which also failed, The Dispatch previously reported.

Superintendent Chad Eisler told The Dispatch on Wednesday that the district is “disappointed by the results and will take time to reflect on what the next steps are.”

Fairbanks Local Schools failed a second attempt at a levy that was rejected in November for capital improvements to the district, although the district voted to continue an existing sales tax in November. Superintendent Adham Schirg said that they have heard feedback in the past 12 months that the district community wants to maximize the funding they currently have.

North Fork also failed its levy for a second time — this time losing ground by several hundred votes, Hartley said. He said the district doesn’t want people getting in the habit of saying ‘no’ because a levy appears every election cycle.

“We want them to really take a look at what we’re asking, what’s in their best interest and in the best interest of the kids in the community,” Hartley said. “Those are the things that we want them to do, and we can’t do that if we keep coming at them all the time.”

What’s next for central Ohio districts?

When levies fail, Chambers said districts have the choice of changing the amount, changing the years it will be collected, changing the type of ballot issue — or make cuts in the district.

“If they’re asking for money, they’re asking it because there’s a need that exists,” Chambers said. “They’re asking for bonds to build buildings is because the need exists.”

As for districts that can’t pass a levy for capital improvements, Imhoff said districts will bring in or expand modular or trailer classrooms, and when resources for that dry up, may switch to a split schedule to accommodate a growing student population in extreme cases.

Olentangy Superintendent Todd Meyer said in a letter to parents and staff that the levy “was the district’s lowest operational ask of this community in 30 years, and we are all naturally disappointed the ballot issue did not receive enough voter support” after 63% of voters reject its bond and levy package.

Meyer acknowledged in the letter that there are many questions about how this decision may impact current attendance boundaries, the construction and opening of new schools, and the timing of a future ballot issue.

“We do not have all those answers yet,” Meyer said. “We will take a closer look at resource alignment and our priorities as we work to meet the needs of an ever-growing student population.”

North Fork and Heath Schools, both located in Licking County, said they still need to prepare for an influx in student population as the Intel microchip plant project gets underway in Johnstown. Heath’s Thomas said the districts around the Intel site should be considered for additional funding for the state as they anticipate a growing student population.

“It puts a stress on us. ” Thomas said. “They’re coming here and they don’t ask the school districts for permission.”

And North Fork’s Hartley said the district will be reevaluating and seeing how they can bring the cost of their proposal down.

“I think the economy needs to change a little bit before we even come back at our communities and say, ‘Hey, can you help us out here?’ unless the state turns around and does something different with propertytaxes,” Hartley said.

Schirg said he looks forward to working with the Fairbanks community to develop solutions for the short, intermediate, and long-term needs of the district.

“One of the great things I love about local government is people that live in your community get to make decisions, Schirg said. “We are the community’s schools, and part of the democratic process is people have a say that gives us as a school district feedback allows us to carve a path moving forward.”


This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: School levies went down in central Ohio on Tuesday. What went wrong?

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