With State Funding At Its Limit, Olentangy School District Appeals To Voters For New Levy
Kindergarten teacher Mindy Skinner is worried about the district's financial future as she reads to one of her half-day kindergarten classes at Liberty Tree Elementary. Each of her classes has 18 students.
Skinner says she supports a levy for Olentangy School District on next week's primary ballot. The Delaware County district is proposing its 10th ballot issue in 21 years, which it says is necessary due to a growing student population and relatively low state funding.
Skinner says it will help the district keep some class sizes small and continue extracurricular activities.
“I think it would just continue to allow us to maintain the excellence that we provide,” Skinner says.
Liberty Tree has seen enrollment increase about 25% since 2007. Olentangy superintendent Mark Raiff says district-wide growth is a major reason they are going back to voters with another levy request.
“We are quickly running out of space in both the elementary schools and the middle schools with our schools being overcrowded,” Raiff.
This year, the district is actually asking voters to approve three ballot requests. One is a bond issue that would fund three new schools, which 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,” Raiff says.
When it comes to comparing school tax rates, the easiest metric is how much homeowners pay per $100,000 of home value.
Olentangy is now at $1,664 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, who lives in the Glenwood subdivision. Her son graduated from Olentangy in 2009, but she says higher taxes might push her to move.
“We can’t pay for any more,” Williams says. “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,” MacDowell says.
Howard Fleeter, an economist and research consultant for the Ohio Education Policy Institute, says Olentangy faces unique challenges since it’s grown by 50% over the last decade. Fleeter says state aid has not kept up with the financial needs because of a cap on funding.
“Not only was that state-aid formula frozen for several years, while they were gaining 3,000 or 4,000 students, they’ve also been subject to something we’ve had the last six years called the cap,” Fleeter says. “So they’ve not even gotten all of the money that the formula says they should get.”
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," Raiff says, "because we always know in Olentangy, the next levy request isn’t an if, it’s a when."