Voters in 6 Butler County school systems to decide on new security tax

Residents in more than half of Butler County’s school systems could see a new kind of school security tax on the fall ballot after some school leaders decided this week to push ahead with the tax now allowed by the state.

Under a new school taxing option — to form a county school financing district that went into effect in March — school districts in Ohio counties can cooperate collectively in placing a school security tax hike before voters.

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The new taxing option in Ohio was prompted by the sharp increase in recent years of violent threats and attacks on local schools and high-profile deadly violence in schools.

The informal and non-binding vote by leaders of Butler County’s 10 public school districts showed six favor proceeding with the process of putting a tax hike on the November ballot: Hamilton, Fairfield, New Miami, Monroe, Ross and Edgewood.

Two districts — Madison and Middletown — voted to not participate.

Lakota School officials were listed by county school officials at the meeting as a “no” vote but said later their position was mischaracterized and that the district remains undecided.

Officials from the Talawanda Schools did not attend the meeting but recently announced it would not participate.

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Further steps are now required for the proposed 1.5-mill school security tax to get to the ballot, including votes later this month by some school boards to opt in or out.

If the new Butler County tax is placed on the fall ballot — and then approved by voters — it would fund “school safety and security and mental health services” — including paying for more mental health counselors for students — for participating school systems.

The participating districts agreed to pursue placing a 10-year, 1.5-mill school levy on the November ballot for their residents to vote on.

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It’s a new and complicated process with more public actions required before qualifying for the Nov. 6 ballot.

Adding to urgency are upcoming votes required by local boards later this month, certification of the 1.5-mill tax by the Butler County auditor, and filing the tax issue with the board of elections — for the ballots in the six participating districts — by the state deadline of Aug. 8.

Under the new state law, each county’s educational service center, oversees the process of putting the new security tax on the ballot.

School district leaders peppered Chris Brown, superintendent of the Butler County Educational Service Center (BCESC) and the center’s attorney with questions during a meeting last Thursday.

County educational service centers are taxpayer funded and work with all local public school districts, overseeing and coordinating some shared instructional services.

“There is a new option … and if we are going to move in November there is a decision we have to make today,” Brown told the area school leaders.

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After the vote, Brown indicated it is likely the BCESC’s board will approve the next step in the process — as required by the new Ohio law — in putting the 1.5-mill tax hike on ballot.

Middletown City Schools Board of Education member Michelle Novak said her district’s “no” vote was partially in response to the quickened pace being attempted to put the school security tax on the fall ballot.

While Novak likes the new security tax option now offered to Ohio districts, she said Middletown opted out “because it’s really important to first get feedback from our constituents.”

“We also don’t want to move forward in raising a certain amount of money when we really don’t know yet what (security measures) we want to spend it on. We want to be strategic about setting up a plan first,” she said.

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Sharing Middletown’s concerns was Lakota Treasurer Jenni Logan, who also cited the relatively fast-paced process some of the participating districts are attempting.

“For us in Lakota, this feels rushed compared to the way we do levies,” said Logan.

“But we also understand the urgency of school security, so it does not feel rushed from that aspect. (New) levy or not, we always need to do more to make sure that kids feel safe,” she said. “But there has not been that time to engage our community” about putting a 1.5-mill tax hike on the ballot.

BCESC officials initially listed Lakota as a “no” vote at the meeting, but later Logan said, “it isn’t we are really saying no to (the tax). We can’t promise today we will be with you (in joining the tax group).”

“We need more time for our school board to discuss it,” Logan told the Journal-News one day after the meeting.

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Hamilton school officials, however, backed the idea.

“We have received a very clear message from our community that they want to see more security in our (school) buildings,” said Hamilton City Schools Superintendent Larry Knapp.

Butler County districts that decided to not participate will not be a part of the financing district. Their residents will not be asked to approve the new school security tax and their local school system will not receive any tax money should the school levy pass in the fall.

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Area school districts have for years devoted millions of dollars toward school security, including some armed school police officers, video cameras, high-tech door locks and other devices and procedures.

But this past school year’s horrific shooting rampages at high schools in Florida and Texas — and elsewhere — have added urgency to an already top priority for all schools of assuring student safety.

Determining the exact cost for taxpayers in each of the participating districts at this early point in this new process is problematic, said Brown.

The costs for homeowners of the proposed 1.5-mills, which would be collected for 10 years if approved by voters, would be based on the average valuation of housing in each school system.

That valuation varies widely between Butler County school districts, with some located in largely rural areas, others in upscale suburbs and others in cities.

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But Hamilton City Schools Treasurer Robert Hancock estimated if the proposed 1.5-mill school tax were to make it to the November ballot and win approval by Hamilton voters, the owner of a $100,000 home in the city would see an approximate yearly increase in school taxes of about $53.

Under the new state law so-called “Local School Districts,” such as Lakota, are automatically opted in and will have to hold a school board vote — in Lakota’s case on June 28 — to decide whether to stay in or opt out. The vote must be a simple majority of the five-member board.

State designated “City School Districts,” such as Middletown, are required to have their school boards vote — by simple majority — to join the school financing district pushing the new tax.

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