School Levy Hot Button Issue In Westerville

Voters in Westerville will decide in November whether to reduce a 2009 school tax levy. Some people fear it will hurt the school system and be a detriment to the overall community. But the group leading the issue says the district needs to be more fiscally prudent.(Photo: Flickr)
Voters in Westerville will decide in November whether to reduce a 2009 school tax levy. Some people fear it will hurt the school system and be a detriment to the overall community. But the group leading the issue says the district needs to be more fiscally prudent.(Photo: Flickr)

Tension over school funding is brewing in the quiet, picturesque city of Westerville. The board of education staved off a strike after teachers and board members agreed after a protracted battle over a new contract. Now a local non-profit group is waging a campaign to reduce a school tax levy.

Westerville residents are divided over how much they’re paying for their schools. The division runs so deep some families choose not to even discuss the issue at the dinner table.

And it’s likely to get more contentious now that the Franklin County Board of Elections has certified the signatures collected by Taxpayers for Westerville Schools to take their levy reduction issue to the voters. This group considers itself the watchdog of the city’s school system.

“We need good schools for our children, but we also need to manage the budget so we’re not putting an over excessive tax burden on the district’s residents,” Jim Burgess, treasurer of Taxpayers for Westerville Schools, said.

Burgess said the group wants to decrease a school tax levy voters approved in 2009 because it said the district needs to be more prudent with its funding.

“What Taxpayers has shown and continues to show that there’s plenty of money, plenty of revenue available to run all the programs they had back in 2010, 2011, same bus routes, same everything and they didn’t have to increase the burden on the taxpayers,” he said.

The district has gone to taxpayers twice since 2009. Once last November when voters overwhelmingly said no to both an income AND property tax increases; and then again in March when voters narrowly passed a reworked levy proposal.

Westerville school board president Kevin Hoffman said he feels voters spoke when they passed the March levy.

“The community in passing it basically, we took that as that they want us to go forward, they want quality education to be a hallmark of the Westerville schools community,” Hoffman said.

According to state law, Taxpayers for Westerville Schools cannot target the March levy because it’s a temporary tax. So instead, Burgess said the group wants to cut the 2009 levy by the amount passed in March, that would be 6.7 mills, essentially negating it.

“The intent was to net effect our taxes going up zero come next year,” Burgess said.

Coming out of the Westerville Library, Barbara Bayless, who is retired, said she voted against the school levies. And Bayless said she’ll do it again.

“I think sometimes the schools aren’t saving enough,” she said. “[Schools] aren’t looking at their budgets more to save more. And asking for extra money when they may not need it.”

Westerville resident Gilbert Cavins said the tension over school funding in Westerville is palpable.

“People are concerned. No question about it.”

In Cavins’ opinion, though, the district is fiscally responsible. And he says if the levy is cut, it will hurt the city.

“I believe it would be a detriment to the community. If we cut schools, bands out, all the sports, choir, this whole business, that makes for a lesser school system,” Cavins said.

One woman, who declined to be recorded, told WOSU she and her husband cannot discuss the issue at all because they’re so divided over it. Others said they had strong opinions, but were hesitant to share them.

If voters approve the levy reduction in November, it would cut about $7.4 million from the district. Westerville Area Chamber of Commerce President Janet Davis worries about how it will affect the community as a whole.

“If one of these three-legged stools, the legs of the stool go down, it could hurt all of us,” Davis said. “So I think we’re all in this together. And I think we need to find a way to survive with all of the strong support of business, school and government.”

Trevor Kielmeyer teaches at Westerville South High School and speaks for the teacher’s union. He admits there’s a certain amount of “levy fatigue” in the community.

“Certainly the taxes are not inexpensive, but we seem to have, you know, something big hanging over our head every year. We had a levy in November. We had an emergency levy in March,” Kielmeyer said.

School board president Hoffman said about $8 million was cut from the district’s $150 million budget last year following state funding cuts and property revaluations.
Hoffman said the district has reduced busing and laid off 100 employees. He said there’s not much else to cut.

“We’ve had reduction in program options and the number of classes that students can take, reduction in the length of the school day,” Hoffman said. “We’ve taken fairly serious impacts to the services we can provide because that’s what we have the funding to do.”

Westerville’s taxes rank third among Franklin County school districts. Teachers’ salaries are not rated as high. Starting at about $37,700 and maxing out at about 75,000, they’re in the middle or lower compared to other schools.

Still, Taxpayers for Westerville Schools’ Jim Burgess says teachers are overpaid.

“To sit back and say we need to exorbitantly pay teachers to keep great ones is a falsity. There are great teachers making half of what our teachers make at private schools and charter schools. And they’re great teachers,” Burgess said. “Not that I’m saying they should be paid half. But I’m saying there are going to be great teachers, and the market will bear it out. And right now the market is saying you’re overtaxing our residents.”

Both sides say they’re prepping to argue their side of the issue come this fall. There are rallies planned, and ballot issue yard signs could very well outnumber those of the even bigger presidential race.

  • Amy Bumpus

    If the levy repeal happens, everyone in Westerville will suffer–even the repealers. First education is not a charitable contribution, it is a self-serving tax paid that benefits the entire community in producing a better society. An educated society that can improve the quality of life for all. All children need well-rounded educations to support and improve learning in the basic areas; that means including music-band and choir, the arts, drama and sports to the math, science and reading. Society does not know who will develop the next cure a disease or a renewable energy technology that is affordable, or create the next best selling novel. Teachers facilitate this and great teachers inspire great people. We need great schools. Secondly, the repealers are not going to like their property values as our school continue to decline due to their short sighted-ness. As a licensed real estate agent schools are a top priority for the majority of buyers, even those without children look at the school scores because they believe strong schools represent a healthy community. I know they say this is an issue of accountability and using money wisely but the numbers don’t support that, our teachers salaries are not the highest and neither are our taxes.

    • Concerned Senior

      You don’t think a gym teacher making over $100,000 is not excessive. Check the Ohio web site
      the top pay in 2010-2011 school year is $86,409 (plus benefits).
      We need to get spending down to what everyone in Westerville can afford.

    • Concerned Senior

      Also, check the Buckeye Institute web site, there are 271 employes in the Westerville School district who made over $80,000 (plus benefits) in the 2011 school year.

      • Westerville Parent

        Really? You think the fact that–even if your number is correct– roughly 25% of the school teachers in the district make 80K out of which they have to pay their own benefits is a problem? Maybe you should move to a community without a school system so that you don’t have to pay these taxes. I moved here so that I could get my kids into a school system with good teachers, and unlike you, I don’t have a problem with the fact that a good teacher makes a good salary and has good benefits. I leave them with my CHILDREN for gosh sakes.

        • Concerned Senior

          I did not say TEACHERS, I said employes. Are you saying the teachers at St. Pauls are not good because they are not paid the excessive salaries that are being paid public school teachers? You state “Even if your number is correct” Are you not capable of checking the web site to verify?

          • Westerville Parent

            Well if you’re including all employees that makes your argument even weaker. That means that only 16% of the employees in the entire school district have a salary over 80K. Some of those employees are principals and people with highly specialized skills.

            Setting aside the fact that this data is housed at a conservative anti-union, anti-tax think tank’s web site, I would point out that teaching isn’t like many of the other professions with which it is being compared. It requires a lot of…people. That means it’s going to be highly labor cost intensive. What the heck else are you paying for besides facilities, transportation and insurance?

            And those people are generally HIGHLY educated. And guess what,…you have to pay highly educated and credentialed people commensurate with their education, skills and training. So just throwing out a number that 271 people earn more than 80K is meaningless. All these people have different credentials, came into the system under different conditions.

            I happen to be acquainted with a teacher in the system who taught one of my kids. One of the best teachers that I’ve met. He has a doctorate and I just discovered that he only makes in the mid 50s. If you had a Doctorate, what do you think you would expect to earn?

            Frankly, I don’t know what the teachers at St Paul’s make and I don’t care. It looks like there are maybe four or five who teach multiple grades of what must be smaller classes and funded by the parish and private funds. And it looks as if they teach a small and probably affluent slice of the community’s children. You can’t compare parochial school education to that of a public school that has to work with a much more diverse constituency.