Butler County school security tax faces blowback from some officeholders

Butler County’s first ever, collective school security levy is drawing unprecedented opposition from some local officeholders against the proposed tax hike.

Local campaigns for the five participating school districts banding together for a proposed 1.5-mill school security levy are just starting and already are being confronted by high-profile adversaries including the county sheriff, auditor, treasurer and a former school board member.

Also toss in an Ohio House representative and residents in the five school systems — Hamilton, Fairfield, Edgewood, Monroe and New Miami — and this election cycle is witnessing political battle lines previously unseen when it comes to local school levies.

But local school officials counter they have been forced by local and national school shootings to scramble quickly in asking voters to approve the security tax.

Butler County Sheriff Richard Jones was the first major officeholder to blast the proposed, 10-year school tax as “a money grab” last month even before the five districts filed to place the levy on the Nov. 6 ballot.

Recently joining the chorus of rivals are Butler County Auditor Roger Reynolds, Treasurer Nancy Nix, Ohio Rep. George Lang, R-West Chester Twp., and former Fairfield Board of Education member Arnie Engel.

Reynolds has seen many school levies over the years but says the county’s first-ever, five-district taxing district — formed under a new Ohio law enacted in March that allows school systems to collectively ask voters for tax hikes to fund school security and mental health counselors — “was done backwards” and hastily.

The new Butler County taxing district is only the second formed in Ohio under the new law, with a group of Stark County schools suffering an overwhelming defeat of a similar levy this past May.

“I’m frustrated because they (districts) moved so quickly,” said Reynolds. “And they are doing it backwards because they didn’t first go to their constituents and ask them what they want. They didn’t put out their (security plans) on what the money would pay for first.”

Nix’s criticism was similar.

“It seemed rushed to the ballot without a plan set forth on how this security tax will keep our kids more secure,” said Nix. “And I’ve not heard a clear plan for this new school security tax money.”

Moreover, the levy, said Nix, is too much for residents she describes as overburdened by taxes.

“Our homeowners are already heavily taxed, and it’s very difficult for many residents to make ends meet. My office receives handwritten letters daily from taxpayers needing help keeping up with their real estate taxes. Those who get too far behind can lose their home. Our county has passed 40 or so levies in the last 10 years, and I’d argue some were for far more than they needed,” said Nix.

“It appears to me that this issue and this levy has not been well thought out,” said Engel. “I would suggest the citizens of Butler County vote no on this levy unless there is a realistic and specific plan in place to address the root cause of our schools’ violent and tragic events.”

But leaders in the five districts counter they have provided specific details on how the tax funds would be spent should voters approve the security levy.

Hamilton Schools — and other districts — have held or have scheduled town hall meetings and provided detailed breakdowns on how the tax money would be used. Most of the funds in Hamilton Schools are earmarked to pay for more armed school guards and mental health counselors to more quickly identify troubled students who may be prone to violence, officials have said.

Larry Knapp, superintendent of the 10,000-student Hamilton Schools, presided over one of the district’s latest security tax town hall meetings this week.

“Our responsibility is to get the safety levy information out to our Hamilton voters so they can make their own informed decision on Nov. 6,” said Knapp.

Lang not so much criticized the specific security tax but rather came out against the idea of any additions to local residents’ tax burdens. He backs Jones’ longstanding push to fortify schools against attack, but said he is concerned higher taxes will harm school communities and scare off economic growth.

“As with any levy or new tax, the voters in the community must carefully consider the consequences. In the market place, a business can price themselves out of business if their prices are too high and similarly a community can become unattractive to new developments if their taxes are too high,” said Lang.

He praised Jones’ efforts, which after the Parkland, Florida, high school shooting massacre included offering free Concealed Carry Warrant training to Butler County teachers.

“Sheriff Richard Jones has the best interests of school safety at heart. He and I both agree that bad people target environments where they believe they will have little resistance. Sheriff Jones’ policies regarding school safety make our schools safer,” he said.

When asked Thursday about the levy’s opposition from some officeholders, Chris Brown, president of the Butler County Educational Services Center — which under the new state law is mandated to oversee any new school taxing district in the county — declined to comment.

Knapp replied to the same question by saying, “we appreciate and respect the fact that everyone is entitled to their own opinion. That’s what the democratic process of voting is all about.”

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