Bellbrook school levy beset by arguments, errors on both sides

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

Bellbrook-Sugarcreek Schools levy dividing community

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

Bellbrook and Sugarcreek Twp. voters will decide May 7 on a permanent, 7.5-mill replacement school levy, after a contentious pro-and-con campaign that’s included some misinformation by both sides.

A replacement levy is one that updates a levy passed years earlier by applying the original millage rate to updated property values, which are usually higher than when the levy was first passed.

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In the case of Bellbrook-Sugarcreek Schools, this levy would cost the owner of a $100,000 home an additional $211 per year and would raise an extra $3 million per year to pay for the school district’s regular operating costs.

“We’re very respectful that no one wants to pay more taxes, however it’s an investment in not only their schools but their community,” Superintendent Doug Cozad said. “We don’t have an income tax for the school district or the township or the city, so when you look at your total tax bill, we’re on the lower end when you look at all the communities around here.”

DID YOU KNOW THERE’S AN ELECTION MAY 7?: Find out what’s on your ballot in our voters guide

Sugarcreek Twp. resident John Stafford has run an active “vote no” campaign, arguing that teacher salaries are exorbitant, that school leaders should fight harder for more state funding, and that years of property tax increases have created a situation where many residents can’t afford more.

RELATED: Local school levies put spotlight on state funding fight

“The school board has forgotten who they work for,” Stafford said. “The school board works for the taxpayers; they do not work for the teachers.”

Bellbrook’s average teacher salary of $68,986 ranks fourth locally behind Oakwood, Huber Heights and Beavercreek and falls just outside the top 10% statewide, according to Ohio Department of Education data. The group of schools that the state calls Bellbrook’s “similar districts” have an average teacher salary of $67,923.

Misinformation

Both pro- and anti-levy groups have shared incorrect information about the levy.

** Stafford’s “Vote No” effort said in a recent mailer that the school district received $2.3 million in state funding in 2018. But according to ODE, base state aid was over $6 million, and depending on whether additional state reimbursements are counted the figure could be reported as high as $8 million.

** The school district has advertised that Bellbrook’s spending per student was $134 lower than its “similar districts” in 2016-17. That is true. But the district has publicized that figure as the “latest available comparison number.” ODE confirmed that data for 2017-18 has been on the state’s website since December. Those numbers show Bellbrook spent $421 per student more than its similar districts in 2017-18.

RELATED: School funding model for next two years in question

Asked about the discrepancy, Cozad said Friday, “We stand corrected and will get this corrected.”

** Stafford claimed in multiple online postings that 95% of the district’s budget goes to salaries and benefits. The school district and the state both list that figure as 79%. Stafford argued that all of the district’s “purchased service” costs are also personnel, via outside contracts. But according to state and local documents, that category also includes things like technology costs, insurance, utilities/fuel, College Credit Plus costs and other categories.

** The Citizens for Bellbrook Schools Facebook page claimed April 20 that the cost of the levy for an owner-occupied home is $183 per $100,000 of value rather than the correct $211 (a figure confirmed twice by Greene County Auditor David Graham). School board vice president David Carpenter posted the same claim, and both posts stayed up for six days, until this newspaper asked about the error.

Details, opinions

Bellbrook was one of only 28 Ohio school districts to earn an overall “A” on the most recent state report card, joining Oakwood, Springboro and Waynesville locally, and putting them in the top 5 percent of the state.

The district’s two most recent levies for additional funding were in 2015 and 2009, a less frequent levy cycle than Oakwood and Kettering, but more frequent requests than Springboro and Centerville.

Cozad said with only 27% of the district’s funding coming from the state, there is a need to return to the ballot to deal with rising costs.

MARCH: Bipartisan plan seeks school funding overhaul

“Our teacher salary speaks to the veteran staff we have. This is not a stepping-stone place, it’s a destination. They don’t leave, and I think that’s a positive thing,” Cozad said. “About 79% of our funds are to (personnel) — attracting and keeping quality teachers.”

Stafford argued that Bellbrook students would do well no matter what school system they are in because they come from solid families; he said the district could cap teacher salaries at $59,500 and save money. That amount would be by far the lowest maximum salary in the Dayton region.

The state funding model gives more money per student to low-wealth school districts, asking higher-wealth districts to raise the difference themselves via levies. Stafford has also argued that the state funding system unfairly “racially and economically profiles” Bellbrook schools by giving districts like Dayton Public Schools more than three times as much state funding per student.

The average income in the Bellbrook school district is almost three times as high as Dayton’s, and 1 mill of property tax in Bellbrook raises more than three times as much money per student than it does in Dayton, according to state data. Stafford said the model is unfair.

RELATED: Oakwood schools seek levy plus facilities money

“It’s not what America’s about,” he said. “I think Dayton is going to have to be like Bellbrook-Sugarcreek. They’re going to have to live within a budget. They’re getting almost three-and-a-half times what we’re getting. That’s not fair on anyone’s scale.”

It’s clear that some residents are intensely opposed to the levy. Cozad said he doesn’t think that opposition is broadly felt in the community.

“It’s a place people want to be,” Cozad said. “It’s a safe place to be, it’s a great school system, it’s a nice community with a small-town feel. I think when people put that whole thing together … they think it’s worth the investment.”

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