Three different versions of a proposed tax levy for the Alexander Local School District have been rejected by district voters on four separate occasions since November 2016. On Nov. 6, voters in the rural Athens County district will have another opportunity to vote yea or nay on the same levy proposal that was rejected by just 54 votes this past May.
Levy proponents have taken up the cause, again, to campaign in favor of the ballot measure, with hopes that their efforts can make up the small deficit in the last election. After that election, however, voter feedback suggested that a lack of faith in the Alexander administration and a general opposition to increased taxation among many residents in the district may be blocking the levy’s approval.
The Nov. 6 levy attempt will be the district’s fifth consecutive effort in about three years to pass a tax levy intended to make up for a stagnating state revenue stream. The district has proposed several levy options: a 1.5 percent earned-income tax levy, rejected by voters in November 2016 and again in May 2017; a 1.25 percent earned-income tax levy proposed over a five-year period, rejected in November 2017; and the 1 percent traditional income-tax levy proposed in May of this year, which was also rejected by voters in Athens County (the district extends to small parts of Meigs and Vinton counties, as well, and the levy failed in each).
The most recently proposed levy amount was chosen in response to community input, according to school officials. Only about 49 percent of district voters living in Athens County voted in favor of the 1 percent tax, with 1,273 votes, while just over 51 percent voted against the levy, with 1, 327 votes, after all votes were counted.
The Alexander Local School Board voted in July to place “basically the same levy” on the November ballot, School Board President Fred Davis said in an interview in August. The Board did not vote to make any changes to the levy, and will again request a 1 percent traditional income-tax levy to be collected over a five-year period.
“We’ve changed it from 1 1/2 down to 1 1/4 down to 1 (percent),” Davis said in August. “We can’t go any lower.”
Alexander Local School District has not passed an operating levy for additional funds in the last 26 years, The NEWS previously reported, and state funding for Alexander has been reduced by $2.2 million since 2009, school officials previously have said.
Alexander Supt. Lindy Douglas said in January that the School District’s administration cut Alexander’s budget by $600,000 in 2017. Until a tax levy passes, district officials have said that Alexander likely will continue to lose funding and will need to make more budget cuts.
“We have trimmed so much that if additional cuts are needed, I think it’s going to hurt the effectiveness in the district,” Douglas told The NEWS in April.
According to district Treasurer Aaron Schirm, the Ohio Department of Taxation has estimated that the levy would generate approximately $2.1 million annually once collections are in full swing. Schirm explained in an email last month, however, that due to the nature of how income taxes are collected and then distributed by the state, Alexander should expect to receive about 6 percent of that amount in the first fiscal year after the levy passes (Fiscal Year 2019, if it were to pass in November), about 75 percent in its second fiscal year (Fiscal Year 2020), and the full amount by fiscal year three (Fiscal Year 2021).
“The estimated total amount generated over the five-year period would be approximately $10.5 million,” Schirm said in the email. If approved by voters, the tax levy funds would go toward yearly operating expenses, including fuel, food, busing, staff, maintenance, repairs, books and equipment, Douglas confirmed earlier this year.
Feedback from surveys conducted in November 2017 and February 2018 by The Middle Ground For Alexander (a Facebook group run by parents in the district that has published public records regarding the district) and gathered by the Say YES to Alexander Committee following the levy’s failure in May suggested that a lack of transparency, poor communication from district leaders to community members, and a general distrust of Alexander administrators were some of the primary reasons people shared for voting against the levy.
Many respondants in The Middle Ground’s survey of those who voted against the levy argued that the money the School District spent on the Alexander Recreational Center (formerly called the Alexander Wellness Center) has been a waste. Still more survey respondents stated uncertainty about what the levy funds would be used for, while others simply expressed an opposition to taxation. The surveys, as well as information gathered by the Say Yes Committee, also suggested that many voters were confused or misinformed about some of the district’s decisions, and that some residents have felt lied to by district officials.
“Unfortunately, we’ve had a board and administration that has not been truthful for many years, and the community knows it,” said lifetime district resident and parent Amanda Graham in an interview in May. Graham founded the Middle Ground group, and has predicted that community members probably won’t support a levy proposed under the current administration.
“The community does not trust (the administration) with their money or decisions,” Graham said.
Still, proponents of the levy argue that the district’s operating costs continue to increase year after year as inflation rises, and that while state funds have not been increased by more than 1 percent in the last year, local contributions are also minimal.
Becky Busch, a teacher and parent in the district who is helping to lead the Say Yes to Alexander pro-levy committee, said Alexander residents pay the least amount of property taxes in Athens County. In an interview Friday, Busch and fellow Say Yes member Malinda Mowry, who is also a teacher and parent in the district, said that they’re both hopeful the levy will pass next month.
“We’re hearing a lot of support now that people really realize the budgetary constraints,” Busch said. “... We’re hoping that people realize that we really can’t take any more hits.”
In June, the Alexander School Board approved a list of budget cuts in an effort to mitigate the ongoing budgetary crisis, which included a curriculum freeze on textbooks for the fiscal years 2020, 2021 and 2022, valued at $27,000 in savings; a classroom supplies fee that will be charged to students (excluding those in the Free Lunch program) valued at $43,360; athletic cuts (including supplies and transportation) valued at $13,520; and the elimination of several positions, including (but not limited to) the junior varsity cheerleading coach, junior high football coach, assistant band director, sophomore class adviser, Industrial Arts Club adviser, elementary and junior high yearbook advisers, junior high Science Olympiad adviser, play set director, show choir director and several other positions.
Those cuts are expected to amount to $28,956 in savings for the district.
Mowry said more residents and parents in the district are seeing what’s at stake for students, as many athletic teams and extracurricular clubs lost advisers.
“I think parents are realizing one, that they’re going to have to pay more for these things, and two, that they want these things for their kids,” Mowry said.
Since this summer, Mowry said, the committee has made sure its members attend athletic events, concerts and other community gatherings “to make sure people are informed and they know what’s going on.” The organization also has been promoting the levy on social media via Facebook and Instagram.
Mowry said the School District will need to “really flaunt our assets” to encourage voter support, adding that now is the ideal time for the levy to pass.
“If we don’t pass it right now, then we’re going to have to wait until May of next year,” Mowry said. “Then it would be almost a year before we see even a dollar from this… We really need all our supporters to get to the polls.”
According to Douglas, the Alexander district was featured at the National Conference for Rural Education in Colorado last week as the Ohio Department of Education’s “role model and example.” Douglas said some of Alexander’s programs have been implemented across the state and could be expanded to schools across the country.