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Primary election was a 'significantly bad' one for Ohio school districts, but why?

Primary election was a 'significantly bad' one for Ohio school districts, but why?

Watch an earlier report on failed central Ohio school levies in the video player above.

COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – Nearly 100 school levies and bonds went to the ballot in the primary election, and more than half of them failed.

Voters across the state, including in central Ohio, rejected school districts’ asks for money on March 19, whether it be new bonds for construction costs or requests to extend existing levies for daily operations. A combination of factors, including expected property tax hikes and voter turnout, resulted in the worst year for both new money and renewal levies since 2010, said Mike Collins, executive director of Support Ohio Schools. 

“The stars aligned, and not in the way you want them to,” Collins said.

Support Ohio Schools is a duo of nonprofits, a research branch that partners with Bowling Green State University, and a consulting branch for districts’ levy campaigns. There are “winning strategies” for districts, he said, but even the strongest strategies can’t overcome perfect storms.

Both Collins and Scott DiMauro, president of the Ohio Education Association, pointed to the election happening after the latest round of property reappraisals. Many homeowners are already unhappy with anticipated tax increases and not keen on further raises, they said.

Statewide, voters approved just six of more than three dozen requests for new money,  according to unofficial election results compiled by the Ohio School Boards Association and Support Ohio Schools. Normally, upward of a third of such requests would be approved.

But even renewal levies that wouldn’t change residents’ taxes were struck down at higher rates than normal. Collins said it’s typical for more than 80% of renewal levies to pass; this past election, it was under 70%.

“When those don’t pass, that is very much cause for concern, because that’s cutting off an existing funding stream,” DiMauro said. “And districts are really forced to make cuts in those situations.”

Low voter turnout likely didn’t help. While the official election canvass hasn’t been released yet, unofficial results show about 22% of registered voters cast primary ballots. It’s typical for primary elections, but significantly lower than general election turnout.

Both DiMauro and Collins cited the makeup of the electorate that showed up to the polls as another contributing factor. Unofficial results show that roughly twice as many Republicans voted than Democrats, likely due to the competitive U.S. Senate GOP primary race. Republicans are more likely to vote against school levies, Collins said.

All in all, it was a “significantly bad” election cycle for school districts, Collins said. DiMauro said while it’s common for districts to have to take new levies and bonds to the ballot two or three times, the failures are coming at a suboptimal time 

Many districts held off on new and additional levies due to financial uncertainty at the beginning of the pandemic, Collins said. And both Collins and DiMauro said the influx of federal assistance – through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, or ESSR, Fund – helped keep costs down, even amid high inflation.

But the ESSR funds are drying up, and taxpayers’ daily expenses aren’t decreasing.

“Inflation, even though it’s receding, the inflation rate is going down substantially, things still cost more,” Collins said. “They didn’t get less expensive.”

Districts’ need for money won’t go away, and Collins said he expects many levies on the ballot in November. DiMauro said it doesn’t help that property taxes often make up more than half of districts’ total budgets compared to the contributions from the state. 

Olentangy Local Schools, for instance, relies on local property taxes for nearly three-quarters of its overall budget. Its combined 4.25-mill levy, which would have funded the construction of five schools to keep up with a rapid rise in enrollment, failed by a 2-to-1 margin.

Both DiMauro and Collins said the Fair School Funding Plan – which is being phased in over several years – would reduce the burden on local taxpayers. DiMauro said the plan’s complete implementation would bring the split between state funding and local property tax funding closer to 50-50. But school levies won’t ever go away, he said.

“In the long run overall, the Fair School Funding Plan means that districts have to go less frequently to voters for property tax increases because the state is fulfilling its obligation to make sure that our schools are fully and fairly funded,” DiMauro said. “But there is always going to be a certain level of local responsibility.”

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