Kindergarten teacher Mindy Skinner is worried about the financial future of the Olentangy School District as she reads to one of her half-day kindergarten classes at Liberty Tree Elementary. There are 18 students per class. Skinner supports a levy on next week’s ballot. She says it will help the district keep some class sizes low and continue extracurricular activities.
“I think it would just continue to allow us to maintain the excellence that we provide,” says Skinner.
Liberty Tree has seen enrollment increase about 25 percent since 2007. Olentangy superintendent Mark Raiff says district wide growth is a major reason they are going back to voters with another levy request.
Olentangy Local Schools in Delaware County goes back to voters next week for its 10th levy issue in 21 years. The district says the extra money is necessary to cover a growing student population and relatively low state funding. Some homeowners though say they are already paying too much.
“We are quickly running out of space in both the elementary schools and the middle schools with our schools being overcrowded,” says Raiff.
The district is actually asking voters to approve three ballot requests. One is a bond issue that would fund three new schools. It would not increase taxes.
The other two, a permanent levy for repairs and upgrades to existing buildings, and a new operating levy, WOULD raise taxes by $277 a year for every $100,000 of home value.
Raiff says Olentangy only gets about $640 a year per student from the state. By comparison, Raiff says some private schools in Ohio receive almost $1,400 per student to help pay for state testing and special education services.
“There have been different funding mechanisms, different funding formulas and for a reason that we can’t explain or understand is why has it never been fixed for a district like Olentangy,” says Raiff.
When it comes to comparing tax rates, the easiest metric is how much homeowners pay per $100,000 of home value. Olentangy is now at $1664 a year. That’s below comparable suburbs like Dublin, Westerville and Worthington, but more than Upper Arlington. If the levy passes, Olentangy will have the second-highest tax rate in Central Ohio at just under $2,000 a year, behind only Bexley.
That’s concerning to some homeowners like Jacque Williams. She lives in the Glenwood subdivision and her son graduated from Olentangy in 2009. She says higher taxes might push her to move.
“We can’t pay for anymore,” says Williams. “I mean we are tapped out. There’s things we want to do to our house that we can’t do, like put a deck or a patio or this kind of stuff because we have to keep paying these levies.”
Tracy MacDowell co-chairs the pro-levy group Olentangy for Kids. She admits it can be a tough sell to many taxpayers.
“I believe there is strong support for the schools, but it is always a challenge to ask people to increase their taxes,” says MacDowell.
Howard Fleeter is an economist and research consultant for the Ohio Education Policy Institute. He says Olentangy faces unique challenges since it’s grown by 50 percent over the last decade. Fleeter says state aid has not kept up with the financial needs because of a cap.
“Not only was that state-aid formula frozen for several years, while they were gaining 3 or 4,000 students, they’ve also been subject to something we’ve had the last six years called the cap,” says Fleeter. “So they’ve not even gotten all of the money that the formula says they should get.”
Superintendent Mark Raiff says if the levy is defeated, cuts of up to $15 million in programs, staff and busing will begin in the fall.
“We’re always examining what we do, how we do it, trying to do it as efficiently as possible, as cost effective as possible, because we always know in Olentangy the next levy request isn’t an if, it’s a when,” says Raiff.