Five things to know about school levies in Ohio

More than 100 school tax issues will pop up on ballots across the state next week.

Educating Ohio's students is a shared, pricey process.

The state's 612 traditional public school districts collectively receive more than $20 billion in overall annual funding from a handful of sources, including both federal and state governments.

The second largest chunk of that money comes from local support.

Year after year, districts make appeals to tax bases by putting a handful of different types of school-related tax issues on ballots.

Voters' support or rejection of those questions can yield significant power on schools' financial decisions and, ultimately, students' future.

Before heading to the polls next week, check out if your district has a levy on the ballot in our searchable statewide database below (MOBILE USERS: click here to search), and read up on this brief explainer on how levies work in Ohio.

"What's a mill?"

One word can have a big impact on taxpayer's bottom lines.

School levies rely on millage.

The rate commonly referred to as "mills" is 1/1000 of a dollar here in Ohio.

Each district's ballot question asks for a specific amount of millage.

If the measure is approved, taxpayers' tabs are determined by multiplying the millage rate by 35 percent of a home's market value.

Local schools then receive that money.

Listen to Ohio School Boards Association's Director of Legislative Services Damon Asbury break down how taxpayers can figure out how much they'll owe in the player below (MOBILE USERS: click here to listen).

Types of ballot issues

Schools typically turn to a handful of big tax questions

Schools have a few different ballot options when it comes to putting issues on the ballot.

Here's a breakdown of a few of the most commonly used tax issues:

 

  • General operating levies: This is the most common type of question. Districts use money from these questions to pay for ongoing expenses, including teacher salaries, utilities, and purchase of textbooks and supplies.
  • Permanent improvement levies: Money generated by these types of issues are used to keep up with the maintenance of school buildings and grounds.
  • Emergency levy: Emergency levies collect the same amount of mills annually for a specific number of years, and are adjusted annually to reflect any changes to property values
  • Bond issues: Districts take up a bond issue when they're embarking on some type of major building project. These are set for 20-year terms, along with a set amount of millage.
  • Income tax issues: Some areas have decided to tax residents' incomes versus property.
  • Combinations: This move combines different types of taxes.

 

Lower levies

2015 has fewer levies compared to recent years.

Across the state, 114 school issues will appear on ballots on Nov. 3.

It's the lowest amount in recent years, said OSBA's Asbury.

There were slightly more than 100 statewide issues in May's election, compared to 165 issues last November.

(MOBILE USERS: click here to see a bar chart breakdown of the issues)

Asbury said there's no exact rhyme or reason contributing to the downtick.

But it is an "off" election year, meaning districts' may figure a lack of presidential or other big-ticket races may mean low voter turnout.

Renewals pass at higher rates

New money requests don't tend to pass as easily.

Levies have a few labels.

Taxpayers will pay more under additional, or new money, requests.

Renewal levies are an extension of an expiring issue, meaning there won't be a tax increase unless the move is combined with a new money request.

Replacement levies raise more money by increasing taxes to reflect properties' current market values.

Over the past few years, the strong trend among voters has been to pass renewals at much higher rates compared to new money requests.

There's no clear cut reason why voters don't approve the measures, but it can be tough to take the financial temperature of a district's entire tax base--some voters may not want to pay more taxes, while others simply can't afford an increase.

Last spring, some parents from the Cleveland Heights-University Heights school district were adamant in their efforts not to pass the district's proposed 5.9 mill levy, and decided to form a political action committee.

The group claimed the schools' instructional spending didn't match its administrative costs, and used a strong online and in-person push to spread that message.

The levy wasn't approved.

Cutting programs

When districts don't pass a levy, things can get axed.

Deciding to ask voters to approve a levy is a process that can take districts' boards of education several months.

Leading up to an election, Berea City Schools Superintendent Mike Sheppard said it's crucial for districts to explain why they feel a tax issue is necessary.

Many make their case by turning to social media, the familiar flock of yard signs, and utilizing word-of-mouth.

But all of those methods weren't quite enough for Sheppard's district last year.

Voters didn't approve a continuing levy of 3.9 mills

While he said his district wasn't necessarily in a dire financial crunch last year, many others often are, and the impact can be quickly felt when a levy doesn't pass.

"Reduction in services like transportation, increase pay-to-play [sports], it could be instructional fees that have to be added," he said.

And sometimes, the cuts hit internally, too.

"There may be a need to reduce the people in your organization," he added. "We've all done that. If you're in a financial situation where you cannot sustain that current staffing allocation that you have, then you need to make those difficult decisions. "

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