School levy season is upon us once again in beautiful Ohio. As election day approaches, Issue 18 – the substitute levy for Springboro Schools – is a hot topic in town. Our streets are once again filled with signs in favor of our local school levy. Our yards are once again littered with rock-filled plastic bags containing the greatest hits of anonymous, local, anti-education conspiracy theorists. Like leaves turning in the fall, our local community social media pages have predictably devolved into angry shouting matches, as the audited, vetted, public information about the strong financial and academic performance of our district is met with a dizzying array of half-truths, half-baked stories, and generally misleading information about the state of our local schools. It’s nothing new. We do this ridiculous dance every few years, as do many communities across Ohio, hoping upon hope that the levy passes.
It’s more than a little ironic to me that the best word to describe how Ohio funds education is “stupid”. Every few years, school districts across Ohio are forced to beg their local community for money in the form of tax levies just so they can operate. Failing a renewal levy would devastate our schools and in turn our community.
It’s true that our schools receive revenue from the state and federal government, but that funding doesn’t adequately pay for basic quality education, and thus local communities in Ohio are left to either fill or not fill the gap in funding. Some levies pass. Some don’t. When they fail to pass, it can be disastrous, particularly when it comes to renewal levies. The inherent financial uncertainty associated with our current funding system naturally creates volatility, inequality, and inefficiency in districts across our state, just as it does right here in Springboro. If you are fiscally responsible and risk-averse, the way we’ve been doing things in Ohio just makes no sense.
Ohio’s public education funding system has been broken for decades, and nobody at the state level seems all that interested in actually fixing it. So, at the local level, we continue going from levy to levy, dancing on the edge of the cliff, working to make ends meet, all the while preparing for the ever-looming threat presented by the prospect of failing a renewal levy. Considering that education matters more now than it ever has to the future of our kids, our community, our state, and our nation, placing such all or nothing bets on our schools every five years, even when the odds of passing renewal levies are favorable, seems beyond crazy to me. But of course, that’s the way it’s always been done, so even though it’s stupid, we repeat the cycle over and over and over, just to make sure we can keep our schools operational. The same old same old is a dangerous approach to funding our schools. We can do better.
This brings me to the topic of the day – Issue 18.
Issue 18 is Springboro’s innovative effort to strengthen the financial foundation of our schools through the implementation of a continuing levy. It is not a new money levy. It is also not a financial panacea. It’s simply a smart way to make a small change that will reduce financial risk for our schools and our community. Issue 18 operates much like a basic renewal levy, but it eliminates the need to run renewal levies every five years and in doing so eliminates the catastrophic risk of failure. Rather than remaining in the current risky cycle of pushing our shoestring school budget to the brink of disaster and hoping for the best, Issue 18 continues the basic funding of our district without all the unnecessary drama and absolute insanity that accompanies local school levy campaigns. We’ll still be stretched to make our budget work, but at least we could remove immediate financial disaster due to a failed renewal levy from the equation.
Some folks fear the prospect of locking in our current system. I honestly don’t understand what they’re so afraid of. Here in Springboro, we spend less per student in our local schools than all but about 3% of the districts in Ohio. In return for our investment, our schools rank amongst the best in the region and the state. In spite of a stupid state system, our schools are a very smart investment. I for one think it’s wise to protect that investment.
We have an incredibly affordable, high performing school system. We spend very little, and we get quite a lot. Our schools are our community’s most valuable asset. Issue 18 protects that asset and provides a more stable foundation for our future.
Issue 18 has added benefits as well. In addition to removing the risk associated with the current renewal system, Issue 18 also ensures that those who come to our community (many of whom do so because of our schools) and build new homes pay their fair share to support our local schools. With our current renewal emergency levy, our schools don’t receive any additional local money for these new residents. Because of this, the current renewal system grows increasingly unsustainable every year as our community continues to grow. More students. Same total local budget. Less local money per student. In contrast, with Issue 18 the tax rate would stay the same as it is now, so all current taxpayers would pay the same amount they are paying now. However, when new homes are built in the district that value is added to our current district value. New families pay the same tax rate as our current residents and thus contribute their fair share to support our school district.
Opponents to Issue 18 have been pushing a range of objections that include misleading and sometimes very colorful charts and graphs, false narratives based on misrepresenting limited data points, and general half-truths about the financial management of our schools and the performance of our students. Pretty much all of the above can be refuted or proven patently wrong thanks to the incredible transparency of our school district. Springboro was an early adopter of the Ohio checkbook, where you can find all district revenue and expenses dating back to 2006. Additionally our district posts all of our financials, audits, financial reports, financials disclosures and more on the Treasurer’s page of our district’s website. We put our meeting minutes online on Board Docs and board meetings are all taped and available to the public to view whenever it’s convenient. Not only is our district financially responsible and academically strong, we’re a leader in transparency too.
The most interesting, or maybe least crazy, objection I’ve seen to Issue 18, relates to the premise that a continuing levy somehow removes local accountability with our schools. I can understand where this could concern folks at first, and if it were true, I’d be very concerned too. However as you research the facts and unpack this objection it quickly unravels.
The publicly elected school board is the governing body accountable for financial and general oversight. Our treasurer provides them, district leadership, and ultimately the community with a wealth of information about our district’s finances, as I outlined above. Our local school board members currently serve 4-year terms. Whether we operate in the current system or in the proposed system, the means for accountability is the democratic election of our local school board. That does not change. The board controls the budget and with it the direction of this or any other levy. Issue 18 is not a new money levy, and our current levy revenue is about as lean as it could get if we hope to have a successful school district.
Should Issue 18 pass, board members still serve 4-year terms. In the event that it was somehow deemed that in spite of being in the bottom 3% of districts in spending per pupil, the district, overseen by the board, was somehow demonstrating a lack of financial responsibility, the community could just elect a new board. The mechanism for accountability remains the ballot box. The continuing levy is only as permanent as the board and community deem it. If at some point the community wants to change the system, the board retains the power to introduce an alternate funding plan, which could simply be a return to the way we do it now. The risk of passing Issue 18 and eliminating the so-called accountability that comes with a renewal levy is basically benign compared to the catastrophic risk posed to us if a renewal levy actually failed.
Put another way, we spend so little on our kids that our renewal levy isn’t a tool that can effectively be used for accountability without destroying our system entirely in the process. The regular elections of our school board members provide our community with the ultimate means of accountability. Look back only a few years to see how a school board run amok will get sent home.
Issue 18 is a smarter approach to locally funding public education, even if our state system remains stuck in a mode of perpetual stupidity.
I believe Issue 18 improves the financial stability of our schools without increasing the tax burden on our community. I believe our schools are worth supporting because they are what makes our community strong. I’m voting for Issue 18. I encourage you to do the same.
To learn more about Issue 18 visit www.keepspringborostrong.org