Two Butler County school systems will be on the May ballot asking for tax increases with millions of dollars of possible budget cuts casting a shadow over the upcoming vote.
The May 2 election day will be pivotal for Edgewood Schools and even more so for Ross Schools as the district will be asking voters for a tax hike for the third time in nine months after seeing election day defeats in August and November.
Voter registration, which can be done online via the Butler County Board of Elections’ website, ends April 3 and early voting begins April 4. In-person voting at the board of elections, 1802 Princeton Road in Hamilton, opens at 8 a.m. on that first day of voting.
Of the two districts, Ross is facing the prospect of losing much of its local district autonomy through increasing state takeover should its proposed property tax be rejected a third consecutive time.
The stakes are high, said Ross officials, with the possibility of $4 million of sweeping personnel and program cuts in the schools during the next two school years, should voters reject a property tax increase.
Those possible budget reductions, which are scheduled to be detailed during an April school board meeting, are on top of $1.8 million of budget cuts in 2022.
Ross’ annual operating budget is $29 million.
The ramifications of another levy defeat will alter Ross’ traditional standing during the last decade as Butler County’s best, overall academic performer, according to annual report cards by the Ohio Department of Education, said Chad Konkle, superintendent of Ross.
“We want to keep Ross ... Ross,” Konkle said referring to maintaining its high ranking.
The prospects of more elimination of student programs, higher athletic and other extra-curricular fees — up from $150 per student last year to now $825 — reduced or cut advance college placement courses, worries school parent Tracy Eads.
Even more so, said Eads, is the idea of watching her local schools, which are now in Ohio’s category of “fiscal caution,” fall deeper under state control in the wake of another levy defeat with accompanying deeper cuts.
“That is horrifying,” said Eads.
“Most of this problem is because of (inadequate) state funding. I moved my family here from Northwest Schools (northern Hamilton County) in 2008 because of all their failing levies. I wanted stellar academics for my kids and up until now it has been fantastic,” she said.
Those opposing Ross’ previous two levies often cited the nation’s relatively high inflation rate and the resulting higher costs of living for their votes leading to the previous two tax issue defeats.
Konkle said the district has no control over the economy and said inflation is also adding to its cost of daily operations, citing a jump from 8% in 2022 for employee healthcare to now 17.9% for the district’s obligated coverage cost portion for its workers.
“We want to keep our school district the top performer in Butler County but unfortunately a lot of our costs are going up.”
Ross voters will be deciding through early voting and election day ballots on a 5-year, 9.44-mill emergency property tax increase. If approved, the new tax would increase the annual school tax for the owner of a $100,000 home by $330.
More levy information and a property tax increase calculator for individual homeowners is available under the “financial update” heading on Ross’ district website.
Inflationary pressures are hitting all of Ohio’s 613 public school districts and forcing some to seek more local tax revenue through ballot issues in May, said officials from the Ohio School Board Association (OSBA).
“School funding in Ohio is a state and local partnership,” said OSBA Director of Legislative Services Jennifer Hogue.
“Ohio’s school funding formula calculates the cost of educating students and determines how much of that cost will be provided through state funding, and how much will need to be raised locally through levies. The need for locally levied dollars remains vitally important,” said Hogue.
She added, however, “meeting these needs has become more challenging amidst rising costs due to inflation.”
Ross levy Campaign Manager Mandy Rice said this third campaign is low-cost with saving money by using no yard signs and is also using a low-key approach by taking advantage of the largely rural district’s “small town” community ties with in-person campaigning for the levy.
The mood among residents she speaks to is one weary of inflation but worried about Ross’ future.
“They are tired of all the increases and the economic hardships that many community members are feeling turn after turn, whether that’s with increased grocery bills to interest rates to gas. And it’s forcing all of us to get very honest with each other and ourselves on what’s most important,” said Rice.
“My hope is that we can recognize what a well-educated community does for everyone who lives in it, not just for families with school-aged kids. It’s not just higher stakes because of state involvement around the corner which is something no one wants …but it’s also high stakes because it will be the third time our community speaks,” said Rice.
“Ultimately, the community will get what it votes for,” in its schools, she said.
Edgewood Schools seek its first income tax to solve looming deficit
Officials in Edgewood Schools are trying something for the first time in its history: Asking voters not for a property tax increase, but rather an earned income tax.
Voting will start soon and end on May 2 for a proposed 1% earned income tax district officials said is essential to staving off projected budget shortfalls for next school year and beyond.
The 1% earned income tax will not apply to residents on fixed incomes, such as retirees on pensions, but rather only those still earning incomes through employment.
Without the increased, local tax revenue, Edgewood would face budget reductions in personnel and programs though no discussions regarding the details of those have been held yet by district officials.
Like many other area districts, federal COVID-19 relief funds have kept the district off the ballot in recent years but those monies are scheduled to fade soon, said Kelly Spivey, superintendent for Edgewood Schools, which includes the city of Trenton and parts of three nearby townships.
“Now that the relief funding is over, the district needs to cut over $2 million,” said Spivey.
The district, she said, has the lowest per pupil spending among surrounding districts.
But, she added, “there are diverse learning needs from students working below grade level and those needing advanced placement.”
“With inflation costs being over 7% in the last year and 50% since the last levy, it is time for the voters to define what education will look like in their community. Without the passage of the 1% earned income, students won’t receive the education they deserve. In a short amount of time, the district will be forced to cut programming back to state minimums.”
That is what worries Edgewood school parent Keith Beckman.
“I want Edgewood schools to continue to do well with excellent teachers. And good schools help the home values in the community,” said Beckman, who added that most other school parents he has spoken to are favoring the tax increase.
Fellow school parent Jessica Merrill said the prospect of a 1% income tax for local schools does not bother her.
“It’s for my children. Budget cuts would be horrible.”
Wesley Williams agreed, saying he is happy with the local schools and wants to maintain a level of quality he appreciates being made available to his children.
“If it costs me a few extra dollars, I’m okay with that.”