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What to know about the Columbus City Schools' 7.7 mill levy on the November ballot

A sign in support of the Columbus City School levy in a yard.
Amy Juravich
A yard sign shows support for the Columbus City Schools levy.

Columbus voters will decide whether to increase property taxes by voting on a 7.7 mil levy for Columbus City Schools next Tuesday.

The combined levy would generate about $100 million dollars, with around 60% of that money — or 4.7 mills of the total 7.7 — going to permanent improvements for the district's buildings. The other portion would be set aside for operating expenses.

“This is really the why behind the ask: it’s about ensuring that we do have the best learning communities,” said Columbus City Schools' Board President Jennifer Adair, who is leading the charge for the levy.

The district employs about 9,000 teachers and staff in 113 buildings.

Around 45,000 students currently attend. That's down from closer to 50,000 students five years ago, according to Ohio Department of Education data. Adair said about 80% of the district’s students are minorities.

To better support students, Adair said the district needs to radically realign its learning communities, including creating larger, more competitive high schools.

“But we have to have this foundation right now to properly maintain what we have,” Adair said.

“This is really the why behind the ask: it’s about ensuring that we do have the best learning communities."
CCS Board President Jennifer Adair

The levy

Based on 2023 property values, the combined levy would cost property owners about $270 dollars for every $100,000 of appraised property value. Recent property reappraisals will likely change the cost per $100,000.

Adair said the larger portion of the levy for improvements will help the district keep up with needed building and equipment repairs. She noted that's cheaper than than having to make replacements when equipment or infrastructure fails completely.

Some district students learn in buildings that are over 100 years old, and many of the schools are 50 or 60 years old, Adair said.

The part of the levy for operating expenses will expand the district’s pre-K program by six classrooms and maintain student and family supports. Adair said, however, it’s mostly intended to "reinvest" in programs started though federal COVID-19 relief dollars, which will run out next year.

Adair said she believes the district used the money responsibly.

“What we decided to use (COVID-19 money) for was really to test out ways to improve our student outcomes,” she said.

Federal pandemic relief funds allowed the district to add some 650 positions. As the money runs out, the school wants to keep around 300 of those positions – including translators, counselors, social workers and custodians.

“These are things that we know are working. And so, we’re asking our community to reinvest in those, because we are seeing a return on those investments,” Adair said.

“They are not good stewards of the money, and they are not transparent with this community.”
Columbus NAACP President Nana Watson

Opposing views

But critics of the levy, like Columbus NAACP President Nana Watson, argue the money was spent unwisely.

"Well, maybe they shouldn't have created any programs during the pandemic," Watson said. "They cannot continue to depend on federal dollars.”

Watson said the NAACP opposes the levy, known as Issue 11 on the ballot.

Three other Black organizations – the Baptist Ministerial Alliance, the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance and Baptist Pastor’s Conference – also oppose the levy, according to a September letter signed by the organizations’ leaders.

“This is the first time in history that I can recall that three Black groups, plus the NAACP, have said no on the levy for our urban school district,” Watson said. She noted that the NAACP has even printed yard signs urging a no-vote on Issue 11.

Columbus mayoral candidate Joe Motil has also said he does not support the levy, citing a high number of evictions and foreclosures in the city.

Incumbent Mayor Andrew Ginther voiced his support, saying in a statement, “this levy will provide critical resources to the superintendent, so she can provide the schools, our students and our teachers what they deserve.”

Watson and the church leaders point to the rising cost of living, new property appraisals and the burden for seniors and lower income residents.

“We have the appraisals coming up. Food is going up fast. You just name it. Everything is going up. It's the wrong time for a levy to be placed on the ballot,” Watson said.

An additional tax for the benefit of the Columbus City School District for the purpose of current operating expenses and general permanent improvements, that the county auditor estimates will collect $99,104,000 annually, at a rate not exceeding 3 mills for current operating expenses and at a rate not exceeding 4.7 mills for general permanent improvements, at a collective rate not exceeding 7.7 mills for each $1 of taxable value, which amounts to $270 for each $100,000 of the county auditor’s appraised value, for a continuing period of time, commencing in 2023, first due in calendar year 2024.

Engaging the community

Adair and Watson don’t see eye to eye, but they both say the district can do more to engage the community.

Watson calls it a lack of transparency. “They are not good stewards of the money, and they are not transparent with this community,” Watson said.

Adair said the district is trying to focus on engagement and being culturally responsive to their diverse families, but it doesn’t happen overnight. “It takes time to connect and to be authentic and to hear people. And so, we'll just keep at it,” Adair said.

In the meantime, the fate of the levy will be up to voters.

Early voting continues at the Franklin County Board of Elections through Sunday. There is no early voting the Monday before the election.

Allie Vugrincic has been a radio reporter at WOSU 89.7 NPR News since March 2023.