New buildings may doom school levies in elections

Voters who approved bond issues in recent years to build new schools rejected requests for new operating levies in those same districts earlier this month.

Beavercreek, Huber Heights, Vandalia-Butler and Xenia all saw their requests for new money defeated on Nov. 6. All of those districts had passed bond issues in recent years but have struggled to pass subsequent operating levies.

“Every time a district builds there seems to be confusion with the operating request that follows it,” Vandalia-Butler City Schools Superintendent Christy Donnelly said recently. “We actually had that here when we built the SAC (Student Activity Center) back in the ‘80s. They built the SAC and then they failed a subsequent operating request.”

Voters in the Vandalia-Butler City School District recently rejected a 6.99-mill levy for operating expenses and permanent improvements. It was the district’s third-straight levy defeat.

Vandalia-Butler opened the new Morton Middle School and a renovated Butler High School in the past year. District voters in 2008 had approved a $49.9 million bond issue without an increase in taxes. In exchange, district officials said at that time they would not ask voters to renew a 4.76-mill emergency operating levy set to expire in 2009, but that they would need to request new operating funds in 2011 regardless of whether the bond issue passed. Since then, voters have rejected identical levies in November, 2011 and twice this year.

Butler Twp. resident Wanda Weber said she was torn over how to vote on the school levy but ended up voting against it.

“I had to vote my pocketbook,” said Weber, who attended one of the school district’s finance meetings in which officials fielded questions about the levy and explained why it was needed.

Milton-Union Superintendent Virginia Rammel has said district officials tried to explain why the renewal levy revenue is so important: it generates $1.7 million annually for the 1,700-student district.

They also pointed out that the district was prohibited from using construction dollars for operations because they are two separate pots of money.

“While we try to say the operating money has nothing to do with the actual building of that structure, it’s hard to always get that message across,” Rammel said.

On Monday, Milton-Union Exempted Village Schools — which opened a new preK-12 school in August — received bad news about its levy.

Its five-year, 10.9-mill renewal levy appears to have failed by nine votes, 2,572 to 2,563 after the Miami County Board of Elections counted provisional ballots and a final batch of absentee ballots. The slim margin qualifies the levy for an automatic recount, which will be done Dec. 3.

Beavercreek City School District voters approved an $84 million bond request in 2008 to permit construction of two new school buildings and renovated its eight existing schools. Voters recently rejected the district’s fourth straight request for new money.

In the Huber Heights City School District, a similar situation has occurred. Voters approved a bond issue in 2008 that permitted the $166 million construction project that is coming to conclusion. Wayne High School is slated to open in January. The district opened a new junior high and five new elementary schools in the past year.

But since voters approved the bond issue, they have defeated three straight requests for new operating money.

Treasurer Ann Bernardo believes there are multiple factors at play, including the still recovering economy and the fact that homeowners are now paying higher property taxes.

“The bond issue increased our property taxes higher than some of the surrounding districts that don’t have new buildings,” she said. “I think that had a significant impact, too.”

Bernardo said that back in 2008, district officials knew they were going to need operating money at some point but “we just didn’t want to ask the taxpayers for additional money at the point where we didn’t need it yet.”

Any regret now, looking back, that district officials didn’t seek an operating levy at the same time as the bond issue?

“That’s difficult to answer,” she said, noting that was the same year the bottom fell out of the economy.

“If I knew now what was happening, of course, yes, I would have actually asked for money but at that point in time we did not need those operating funds so we would not ask the public to pay more taxes when we didn’t need them.”

After this latest levy defeat, Huber Heights school leaders are combing through the budget looking for another $1.6 million in reductions on top of the $3.4 million already outlined for the 2013-14 school year.

Because it is facing state fiscal oversight, the district must file to the Ohio Department of Education by Dec. 31 its plan for what reductions it itnends to make or say how it intends to generate more revenue. No decision has been made about returning to the ballot next year, but Bernardo said that is likely given the situation. Without new revenue, the district faces a $2.7 million deficit by 2014.

“It’s more than likely we’re going to have to (return to the ballot) because it’s really the only thing that is going to generate enough revenue to help us in our situation,” she said.

Contributing writer Nancy Bowman contributed to this report.

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