Michael D. Clark reports:
Not since the 1970s has Southwest Ohio seen one of its largest districts suffer the type of ballot losing streak Lakota Schools hopes will end Tuesday.
Ohio’s eighth largest school system has seen six of seven school tax issues rejected by voters since 2004 and hasn’t passed a new operating levy since 2005.
From 1972 to 1979 Cincinnati Public Schools – the largest district in Southwest Ohio – lost six consecutive levies.
Most recently in Butler County’s Lakota district, officials have seen voters reject two levies in 2010 and one in 2011.
Now, after slicing $20.8 million from its budget, freezing some salaries, eliminating hundreds of teaching jobs and busing for thousands, Lakota is staring at an historic vote that will either financially rescue the district or push it closer to insolvency and possible state control.
“All levies are crucial but this one takes on a different level of importance due to the cuts that have already been made,” said Joan Powell, a 16-year veteran of the Lakota Board of Education that governs the 17,065-student district.
“The school board and district have tightened our belt, re-evaluated all programs, re-allocated resources, received financial concessions from our employees, asked parents to pay among the highest fees for extra-curricular activities in the state, reduced transportation and made difficult eliminations in curricular offerings. Lakota has stepped up (and) we have balanced the budget,” Powell said.
“It is now time for the community to realize that Lakota is a very different place; our students are experiencing educational losses,” she said.
As in other recent campaigns the Lakota school levy has drawn some of the most active and visible opposition among school systems in Southwest Ohio.
The NoLakota anti-levy group has peppered the community with yard signs – though not as many as pro-levy supporters – and accused school officials of being manipulative in their budget cuts to maximize impact and persuasion on school families.
The only “true cuts,” said Dan Varney, treasurer for NoLakota, “have come to classes, busing and extracurricular, which all affect the students in an effort to build the emotion into a levy decision.”
Recent levy campaigns, Varney said, have included “all kinds of threats made by Lakota administrators and the board” with grim predictions of the once academically top-rated district falling into decline.
But, said Varney, “none of it came to fruition.”
Because of recent changes in the way the Ohio Department of Education rates school districts, Lakota’s former distinction as the state’s largest school system to earn a top academic rating of “Excellent with Distinction” is no longer applicable. Nor are its latest, multi-category rankings similar to previous rankings, making comparisons problematic.
Lakota school parent Kathy Cook said she and other school families understand the levy’s importance, and “to say that this vote could be a turning point is an understatement.”
“The vote is crucial to the Lakota school district on so many levels. Not only will its passage preserve the quality education currently occurring in the classrooms but it will also improve the technological infrastructure enabling students to further enhance their educational experiences,” Cook said, referring to district officials’ promise to spend $1 million on new technology and modernized coursework.
Voters in West Chester and Liberty townships will decide on a combination 5.5-mill tax levy, which includes a 3.5-mill operating levy and a 2-mill permanent improvement levy combined into a single 5.5-mill, continuous school tax hike issue.
The new property tax would raise $13.8 million annually for Lakota’s yearly $144.8 million budget. If approved, the levy would cost the owner of a $100,000 home an additional $192 annually in taxes.