July 3, 2003
Board of Education readies vote on two tax levies
The Yellow Springs school district’s two top administrators lobbied last week for support of their proposal to ask voters to renew two levies in November, saying that passing the levies would help the district maintain its education program for the next three to four years, provide long-term planning and reduce property-tax rates in the district.
During a freewheeling discussion at the Board of Education’s meeting June 26, Superintendent Tony Armocida and Joy Kitzmiller, the district treasurer, explained their plan to place the district’s two property tax levies on the Nov. 4 ballot. “We can stay in the black, reduce these levies to these amounts and make a go of it,” Armocida said.
In the first truly broad-based public discussion on the proposal, school board members questioned the administrators on their proposal and school finances, and weighed the pros and cons of placing two levies on the same ballot and the size of the levies.
Board members agreed to hold the discussion, using a Committee of the Whole meeting format, after school board member William Firestone submitted an open letter to the News urging the board to put only one of the levies, a permanent improvement levy, on this year’s ballot. Because of Firestone’s concerns, the school board postponed the first of two votes needed to put the levies on the ballot in order to discuss the levies further. The board plans to vote on the proposal at its next meeting, July 10.
Firestone has said that he plans to vote against the proposal. During the meeting last week, he said, “I can’t in good conscience change my vote” to create harmony. “I’m willing to compromise but not to abdicate,” he said.
When asked what he would compromise, Firestone was vague, referring to administrators in another school district who have agreed to forgo their scheduled raises this year.
Noting that she does not know how she will vote yet, school board member Angela Wright said that “at the very end I think we have to pull it together.”
The school board is considering a proposal to place on the ballot this fall a 1.2-mill permanent improvement levy and a 10.1-mill emergency levy. Both levies would be renewals of levies currently on the books.
The five-year permanent improvement levy would generate $69,000 a year, according to administrators, for technology needs and to purchase school buses. The current levy is 2.2 mills and generates $135,000 a year. It is set to expire at the end of the year. Armocida said that because the district has recently completed a lot of capital improvement projects and it has contingency funds available, the levy’s millage could be reduced. The permanent improvement levy was last approved by voters in 1998.
The emergency levy renewal would generate $1.06 million a year, which, according to information provided by the district, would account for 17 percent of the district’s revenue from fiscal year 2005–06 to 2007–08. If approved by voters, the levy would go into effect in January 2005 and would last three years.
Scheduled to expire at the end of 2004, the emergency levy is currently 10.3 mills and brings in $1.086 million a year. It was last approved in 1999.
Funds from the emergency levy are used for general operating expenses, including paying salaries and benefits, which will account for 80 percent of the district’s budget during the next school year. “If it’s not passed, we couldn’t run the district,” Armocida said.
The proposal would allow the school board to keep its promise of 2001 to reduce the district’s property tax levies if voters approved a 1 percent income tax, Armocida said. When the school board placed the income tax on the ballot two years ago, its members agreed to let expire another tax levy that helped pay for the district’s operations. The income tax essentially replaced that levy.
Several board members said that it was time to reduce taxes. Board member Mary Campbell-Zopf said that “it feels like the right time to be fiscally conservative and give taxpayers a break.”
Armocida also said that placing two levies on this fall’s ballot would allow the district to plan long-term for its needs and maintain the quality of its education program over the next three to four years. Passing the emergency levy this year will help the board and administrators next spring when they must negotiate new contracts with the unions that represent the teachers and support staff, he said.
Approving both levies this year would provide a tax break for property owners, lock in 17 percent of the district’s income and help administrators plan for staffing needs, he said.
Board president Tom Haugsby said that having two levies on the same ballot “lays everything out before voters and tells them “this is what we need” to run the district in the next few years.
Firestone said that it would be “a risk” to place both levies on the fall ballot, saying that it “would hamper us.” Trying to just pass the permanent improvement levy “wouldn’t be too much to sell,” he said.
Board member Angela Wright, however, said that the board could place the permanent improvement levy on the fall ballot and the emergency levy on the 2004 primary ballot. “I think more people will come out if the levies are split,” she said.
But running two levy campaigns “so close together,” board member Rich Bullock said, “would be a serious drain” on school personnel and volunteers. Placing levies on the ballot two years in a row, he said, might create a situation in which local residents “see us coming back again and again.”
As he did in his open letter that was published in the News, Firestone argued that the permanent improvement levy could be funded at a higher rate to generate more funds. Noting that the technology purchased from funds from that levy “goes directly to kids,” he questioned whether the levy would generate sufficient revenue to fund upgrades in the district’s three schools. “I’m sure the computers at the board office are not more than five years old,” Firestone said. “Why don’t students need the latest technology?”
Others argued that the proposed levy would provide enough income for the district’s technology needs. The money the district has for technology “hasn’t been inadequate,” Armocida said, adding, “I don’t feel we’re shortchanging technology at all.”
Campbell-Zopf said that the board should follow the advice of the district administrators. “I would like to trust the administration,” she said.
Wright said the recommended millage “is perfect,” and that the district can afford to reduce the permanent improvement levy because the McKinney School does have “a good representation” of computers and other technology.
According to Armocida, at 1 mill, the permanent improvement levy would generate $55,000 for technology, and $14,000 for buses. The district also has funds left over from the current levy as well as from the sale of the Morgan Building, from several years ago, Armocida said.
Tony Arnett, a former school board member who is now the Village Council president, noted that for years the school board would place levy increases on the ballot “year after year,” and now the district can break that pattern and “get two for one.”
“You can say you’ll control expenses and reduce taxes,” he told the board. “I think that’s a compelling argument.”