Michael D. Clark reports:
Voters in Greater Cincinnati’s second-largest school system will likely see a tax hike on the fall ballot.
Voters will decide on a 3.5-mill operating levy and a 2-mill permanent improvement levy combined into a single 5.5-mill school tax hike issue.
The board’s vote is the first of two required under Ohio law to place school tax issues on the ballot. Lakota officials have until Aug. 7 to file with Butler County election officials for the Nov. 5 ballot.
If approved, the levy would cost an additional $168 annually in new school taxes on a $100,000 home.
Some of the 2-mill permanent improvement levy money would go to enhancing security at Lakota school buildings, including adding more cameras. Other funds would go to improving student technology.
The 3.5-mill operating levy would largely fund labor and other costs.
In a statement today, Lakota Superintendent Karen Mantia said approval of the combination levy would allow $6.3 million for upgraded security and $13.5 million for a multiyear technology upgrade program.
“Security has always been important,” Mantia said. “But unfortunately, with the world we live in now, we need to do even more.”
She added that the security spending would include tripling the number of police officers and sheriff’s deputies in Lakota schools, as well as physical changes to school buildings.
Lakota’s student and district network of technology needs updating, she said.
“We can use technology to be more effective and cost-efficient,” she said. “But we need the infrastructure in place to do that, and we’ve fallen far behind. It’s about building a network infrastructure that allows the district to use technology the way it should be used in a large organization.”
The 16,949-student district has not seen voters pass a new operating levy since 2005 and saw three school tax issues rejected at the ballot in the last three years. Two operating tax hikes were rejected by voters in 2010 and one in 2011.
The district has cut more than $36 million in personnel and programs in recent years, including more than a 140 teaching positions and busing for thousands of students. The district now spends $20 million less than in 2010, said officials.
Once Ohio’s seventh largest school system, Lakota has lost 9 percent of its enrollment since 2010 but remains Southwest Ohio’s second-biggest school district. Despite its historically deep budget cuts, Lakota has maintained the state’s highest academic ranking of “Excellent With Distinction” in recent years.
Lakota tried a series of combination levies – offering voters both permanent improvement tax increases to build new schools and operating levies – more than a decade ago and saw most go down in defeat at the ballot.
Dan Varney, treasurer for NoLakota – an anti-school tax levy group that actively campaigned during the district’s last three unsuccessful tries to raise property taxes, said today Lakota officials are “trying to exploit the Sandy Hook killings” by including a promise of spending more money on school security if the tax is approved.
In December, a gunman killed 26 at the Sandy Hook Elementary in New Town, Conn. The shooting deaths of 20 children and six adult school staffers launched a nationwide examination of school security measures.
“That’s the security card they are playing and I’m sure that will be our position as the campaign moves forward,” said Varney.
He added that Lakota’s recent years of deep budget cuts, which produced no corresponding drop in its state academic rating, “shows they could balance their budget and their rating hasn’t dropped.”
Mantia also cited expected changes coming in the next Ohio budget, scheducled to be approved this week, for the choosing to go for more tax money in the fall.
Those changes would eliminate the current state rollback of 12.5 percent on property tax issues approved by voters after 2013.
Any tax levy passed after 2013 will need to have 12.5 percent greater millage to realize the same dollars.
“That doesn’t change the needs, but it was a factor in the timing,” said Mantia. “November of this year is the last chance to have a levy before that goes into effect. After that residents will have to pay more for any levy, no matter when it is.”
The board is scheduled to take its second and final vote to place the levy on the fall ballot during its July 8 meeting.