Centerville schools are asking residents for a tax increase for the first time in six years, seeking a two-part levy that will be a single voting item on the Nov. 5 ballot. Early voting opens Tuesday.
The 6.9-mill levy is mostly for day-to-day school operating costs (5.9 mills), while the last 1 mill would be “permanent improvement” funding for building renovations and long-term assets such as buses and technology.
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“We put together a variety of levy scenarios, and you look for that sweet spot that you think is a reasonable ask and makes sense (for the schools) from an operational standpoint,” Centerville Superintendent Tom Henderson said. “Six years is the longest this district has gone (between operating levies) in at least four decades. … We’ve worked really hard to be fiscally responsible.”
The 6.9-mill levy would cost a homeowner $241.50 annually per $100,000 of appraised property value. It would be a permanent levy, rather than a five-year tax that comes up for renewal. According to the Montgomery County Auditor, it would raise another $12.3 million per year for the schools, which have an annual general fund budget of about $100 million.
Ohio Department of Education data for 2018 shows Centerville schools spend more per student than the school districts the state considers similar — $13,143 per pupil, compared to $11,894. That $13,143 figure is in the top 20 percent of Ohio school districts.
The district’s average teacher salary is lower than those “similar districts” ($66,110 compared with $72,226), while average administrator salaries are higher ($110,711 vs. $94,516), although Centerville has fewer administrators per student.
Most of Centerville schools’ funding comes from local tax levies. The district’s state revenue per pupil, according to ODE’s District Profile Reports, is $2,895, placing it in the bottom 5 percent of the state.
“We are considered a high-wealth district,” Henderson said of the low state funding. “We believe the way we operate, and the decisions we make to provide a top-notch excellent educational program for our students, is what our community expects. Our survey and our focus groups speak to that.”
Online levy debate has included a variety of viewpoints. On the levy committee’s Facebook page, some supporters point to the six years without a tax increase, while others cite the need to attract the best staff and provide strong academics and extracurriculars.
Opponents have argued that taxes are already too high, pointing to lower rates in Warren County. They want the district to seek savings from big-ticket items like employee salaries and benefits down to small things like textbooks and paper.
Centerville is surrounded by very different examples. Kettering and Oakwood schools to the north have generally put tax levies on the ballot every three years for the past 20 years. Springboro and Lebanon schools to the south also get strong report cards while spending far less per student.
Henderson acknowledged he hears from residents with competing desires. Some wonder why Centerville doesn’t spend for the brand-new schools and amenities that many surrounding communities have. Others wish Centerville would spend less to keep taxes lower.
The last year Centerville schools were on the ballot for an increase, in 2013, a 6.9-mill levy was narrowly rejected in May, but then voters approved a 5.9-mill measure by a 57-43 ratio in November.
Centerville schools have been consistent on the state report card in recent years, earning overall “B” grades, with C’s in test score achievement and A’s in student growth, generally putting them on the higher end of local schools.
Henderson said the district offers great opportunities, from high school career tech, to middle school foreign language and advanced math, to strong programs in music and special education, while keeping class sizes reasonable.
“Our community expects that excellence, and to do that, we need to be able to continue to recruit and retain a high-quality teaching staff, and we need to make sure our facilities provide that environment for teachers to teach and students to learn,” Henderson said.
All-day kindergarten is on hold at the moment, as the district is watching how construction of new apartments will affect enrollment and how state rules on preschool licensure affect staffing needs. District enrollment dropped from 2010 to the middle of the decade and has been on the rise again in the past few years.
All of Centerville’s traditional elementary and middle schools were built in the 1950s and 1960s except for 95-year old Magsig Middle School. The high school and Primary Village North were built in the early 1970s, and Primary Village South is the district’s only “new” school, built in 2007.
Henderson said safety and technology are areas where the district has improved, but would like to keep investing. As a high-wealth district, state money to build new schools is not available.
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Henderson said after multiple years in the black, expenses have risen faster than revenues, so the district is now in the red on an annual basis. If the November issue doesn’t pass, the earliest the district could collect any new tax money would be early 2021, if a levy passed in 2020.
“Once you start spending more than you take in, it goes very quickly,” Henderson said. “Our philosophy has always been to save and work hard to be fiscally responsible, then once we got to that point where our expenses exceed our revenues, that we were going to go back (to the ballot) and try to correct that. You hope that your community supports you, but if they don’t, we have a little bit of time to make prudent decisions on what to do.”
Henderson said those first “prudent decisions” if the levy was rejected would be a critical look at whether to replace retiring staff, a likely increase in class sizes, and putting additional school resource officers on hold.
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