You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

Tiger Nation divided as back-and-forth continues on Cleveland Heights-University Heights school levy

The Plain Dealer  Cleveland logo The Plain Dealer Cleveland 3/10/2020 By Thomas Jewell, cleveland.com

CLEVELAND HEIGHTS, Ohio -- A proposed 7.9-mill operating levy for the Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District remains a lightning rod in the community prior to its appearance on the March 17 primary election ballot.

If passed, the measure would provide about $8.8 million in additional yearly revenues for the district and tack about $277 onto individual property tax bills for every $100,000 in assessed home value.

At a forum held last month at the Cleveland Heights Community Center, Superintendent Liz Kirby may have best summed up the main sources of the controversy surrounding Issue 26.

"We're talking about children and we're talking about our money, which are two of the most deeply personal and emotional topics for people," Kirby said. "There are very strong opinions on both sides of this issue, and rightfully so. We are asking an already overtaxed community for more money."

Representing "Tiger Nation 4 Lower Taxes," Robert Shwab argues that property owners are already "tapped out," and that the school district is "totally outmatched" by its unions and needs to learn to live within its means.

“We’ve been extremely generous in funding our schools for decades and this has become unsustainable,” said Maureen “Mo” Lynn, treasurer for the political action committee opposing the levy. “We have to take into account the entire community -- retirees, fixed- and lower-income residents who can no longer afford to live here with these additional taxes.”

The Ohio Legislature isn’t making it any easier and may have forced the school district’s hand on going to the voters this time around.

Taking over as superintendent about six months ago, Kirby learned that the state was “siphoning funds meant for public schools into private school tuition vouchers -- that was my August surprise,” Kirby said, calling this school year’s “EdChoice” voucher expansion “disastrous” for the district, as well as many others.

The state is now considering changes to the EdChoice voucher program, but no decisions are expected until April 1.

In the meantime, “we pay out over $7 million in vouchers each year and they’re doing absolutely nothing to help us fill that hole,” Kirby said, arguing that that is what has become “unsustainable, and there will be devastating consequences if it is not fixed.”

Lynn told the crowd assembled at the Cleveland Heights Community Center that Tiger Nation 4 Lower Taxes takes no position against EdChoice; “We’re just here to represent the entire community and try to prevent overtaxation.”

Levy supporters also have their say

“The ironic thing is that, after the 2016 (5.5-mill) levy passed, the district made $5 million in cuts, which meant that there would not be a need for another levy until 2023 -- that is unheard of,” Citizens for Our Heights Schools pro-levy representative Krissy Dietrich Gallagher noted of a potential six- to seven-year cycle between levies.

School district officials did decide in 2018 to push back the standard three-year levy cycle at least until this year.

Levy opponents have pointed out that voters have passed six operating levies for the CH-UH schools since 2000, along with a $135 million bond issue to restore Heights High and refurbish Monticello and Roxboro middle schools.

"The only reason that we are on the ballot right now is because of the hole the state has put us in with these (EdChoice) vouchers," Gallagher said. "The school district is living within its means, it has cut its expenses and now it is being forced by outside players into this really difficult position."

Shwab countered that the reason the district is losing revenue is not from the EdChoice vouchers, but from the loss of student population in recent years, dropping from 5,870 pupils in 2011 to around 5,030 this year.

The CH-UH district is also paying EdChoice vouchers on about 1,400 students attending private and parochial schools, Kirby said.

Shwab countered that there are about 8,500 school-age children in the district, reasoning that “those other 3,500 students’ families are paying property taxes” as well.

Costs vs. benefits

While both sides dispute the district’s cost per pupil in its $130 million annual budget, the average on the state report card is around $14,000 a year, with Kirby noting that that is only slightly higher than surrounding school districts.

Shwab said that is an "interpolated number" that can go over $20,000 per student.

That fluctuation is owed in large part to special needs students in a district where 19 percent of the enrollment is coming through the doors with “individualized education plans,” or “IEPs.”

Opponents of the levy have also called for the district to allow the state to conduct a "performance audit" to see if there are other areas where costs could be cut, although Kirby noted that those generally don't look at educational programs and curriculum.

Another concern from levy opponents centers on salaries and the benefit rate for staff, who pay only 6 percent of their healthcare costs.

"Nobody is getting anywhere close to that in the private sector," Shwab said.

There may be a chance to work on those employment packages, since the school district only negotiated a one-year contract with the the Cleveland Heights Teachers Union last August.

This differed from the standard three-year labor pacts generally negotiated for the 500 CHTU members, including school counselors, psychologists, related service providers, nurses, social workers and ancillaries.

At the time, EdChoice vouchers were cited as a major reason behind the shortened term of the contract.

Extracurricular activities

The campaign for and against has also had some side issues on both sides, including a taxpayer complaint filed against the district by resident Garry Kanter over the possible use of public funds to hire a consultant and conduct a voter survey as the levy was being considered, at a cost of about $34,000.

The Ohio Auditor’s Office had not yet issued any findings in its investigation earlier this week.

Meanwhile, resident Mallory McMasters filed a complaint with the Ohio Elections Commission last month against Tiger Nation 4 Lower Taxes last month over the lack of any "required disclaimers" on campaign signs being posted in yards.

The PAC quickly apologized and had stickers printed up and placed on all signs, showing where they came from, saying that they were previously unfamiliar with campaign law.

The Feb. 20 forum was hosted by the Cleveland Heights-University Heights chapter of the League of Women Voters, along with the Future Heights and Reaching Heights non-profit organizations, with Wendy Deuring from the LWV serving as moderator.

Read more from the Sun Press.

———

©2020 The Plain Dealer, Cleveland

Visit The Plain Dealer, Cleveland at www.cleveland.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

AdChoices
AdChoices

More From The Plain Dealer

The Plain Dealer  Cleveland
The Plain Dealer Cleveland
image beaconimage beaconimage beacon