School Levy Hot Button Issue In Westerville
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.