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Voters Weigh Tough Economy and School Levies

Franklin County voters will decide nine school money issues on November 4th, and they will do so in the most difficult economic climate in recent memory. WOSU talked with voters in three districts to gauge the impact of the economic decline on school district money issues.

We found some surprising results in the state's largest school district - Columbus, the sixth largest district - South-Western City Schools and Dublin, one of the top-ranked districts in Ohio.

Quality schools are a major attraction in Dublin which saw its population double between 1990 & 2000. One of the wealthiest districts in the state, the northwest Columbus suburb of 40,000 has a median home value of about $250,000. Issue 76 includes a combination of a levy for current operating expenses and a bond issue for renovations to schools and buses. It would cost the owner of a median priced house an additional $600 per year in taxes.

Dublin schools passed a levy and bond issue in 2004 with 58 percent of the vote. This year, it might be closer. Joanne Brown lives in the district and says the price of taxes, food, gasoline and many other things is going up, but their family income is not.

Melissa Sonksen is co-owner of Sisters Bakery. She says she and her husband have traditionally voted for Dublin school levies. But this time, they are leaning toward no.

"I don't think this is the right time to bring a levy to pass," says Sonksen. "I think people are scared, and there's a lot going on, and people don't want to spend more money."

Co chair of the Dublin Good Schools Committee Michael Brothers has been working to pass levies in the district for 20 years. He hears voters' concerns this year, but stresses that local school districts are one place where people are still in control. He says one thing the committee has done differently this year is to try to separate district funding from what has been going on in Washington, D.C. and Wall Street.

The sprawling South-Western city school district covers 130 square miles and includes Grove City. The median value of a house there is about $120,000. Issue 81 includes an operating levy for current expenses plus a bond issue to build and renovate schools. The two together would add about $360 dollars to the tax bill of the owner of a median priced home in Grove City.

South-Western City Schools went to voters two years ago, asking for a 1% income tax. 70% of voters said no. In 2004, voters rejected a high millage levy on the ballot. This year, the theme for the campaign is: The Chance of a Lifetime, based on the district's eligibility for state money from the tobacco settlement. South-Western, like the more than one-half of Ohio districts who have become eligible for Ohio School Facilities Commission money, has one year to get voter approval of local funding. No local funding, no state money.

Small signs that say "Chance of a Lifetime" pepper the district, from residential streets to farm fields and industrial parks. The theme has registered with some voters, including Theresa Whal who is buckling her one and three year old children in the back seat of a van at the Grove City Library. Her 4 year old child is in school.

"They need better schools," says Whal. "If you see walls crumbling down and children who don't have room to eat lunch, it's just sad. It is hard to figure out where the money's going to come from. But at the same time, I think it's worth it. I think they need it. So we'll make it work."

Ed Palmer retired in July as principal of Central Crossing High School in the Southwestern City District. As head of the Levy Committee for Issue 81, he makes the case for increasing voter's tax bills in the most difficult economy most residents have ever seen.

"This will take care of our building needs for 40,50 years," he says. "You gotta look at what you're spending and maybe that could be one cell phone's cost a month or a couple nights out, you know?"

Three-fourths of the 54,000 students who attend Columbus city schools are eligible for free and reduced price lunches. The district's Issue 75 includes a levy for current operating expenses and a bond issue for buses, books, buildings and computers. The median-price of a house in the Columbus district is $100,000. If voters approve Issue 75, the owner of a median-priced house will pay an additional $275 per year in taxes for schools.

In exchange for voter approve of a 6-pt-4 mill operating levy in 2004, Columbus city school officials promised not to return to the ballot until this year. The measure passed then by a margin of 55% to 45%. In this economy, it's anyone's guess how the vote will go Voter Dennis Toth has a son in the Columbus schools.

"I guess it's always tough especially at this point for anything that's going to cost more money" Toth says. " However, I've got a high school student."

Columbus Superintendent Dr. Gene Harris says the board of education was well aware of the difficult economy when the decision was made to place the money issue on the ballot, but the community has said it wants solid schools.

The Columbus district has some high profile support, including Ohio State University president Gordon Gee and Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman who says he cannot understand how anyone could afford not to vote for the schools.

Mayor Coleman and many other school levy proponents make a persuasive argument that educating young people is important to the future of communities large and small. The question this election is whether voters will be willing or able to pay for the future when the present economy threatens the ability of many to make ends meet today.