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Akron, Cleveland Schools Strategize to Get Levies Passed

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The average school district in Ohio is involved in a levy campaign every three to four years. Each campaign takes hours of fundraising, door knocking and rallying. Next week, Ohioans will vote on more than 190 school tax issues. Ideastream’s Michelle Kanu has been following the campaigns of two urban districts, and has this insider’s look at some of the strategies that go into getting the public to say “yes.”

Tuesday, October 30, 2012 at 7:39 pm

At Akron’s East High School, band members are playing trumpets and beating drums to commemorate a special anniversary. Seven years ago, the school board planned to close East High to save the district money, but with some help from city council, hundreds of parents and students packed the auditorium and rallied to keep the school open.

That memory provided an opportunity to invite the community back, and to encourage support of the district’s 7.9 mill levy on the November ballot. David James is Akron Schools Superintendent. He says he tells residents the levy is key to sustaining the academic improvements the district has already made.

James: “For us, passage means that I won’t have to cut nearly 27 million dollars from the budget. If it passes, we’ll have to cut, but not as much. So that means I’ll be able to preserve some of our quality programs and not have to dig as deep into the district and remove a lot of resources that again are targeted to ensuring our student success.”

This is Akron’s second try for a levy in 12 months. The one last November failed by just 200 votes. School district officials admit that campaigning for levies is an arduous task, and often a frustrating one – especially for those who have seen multiple levies fail. But James says…

James: “It’s just part of the job. And there’s no sense in complaining about it. You just have to do it, you have to get out there, talk to people, try to convince people that the schools should be supported.”

And if it fails, you go back out and try again – as many times as it takes.

Howard Fleeter, a consultant with the Education Tax Policy Institute, says nearly 47 percent of Ohio’s school districts have a tax issue on the ballot at some point every year.

Fleeter: “We do go to the ballot more than any other state in the country due to the way our property tax works. We don’t get any inflationary growth out of the real property tax and we don’t really have the business personal property tax anymore which used to provide growth. “

Each time they go to the ballot, school systems strategize, deciding what their best tactic is for getting their tax issues passed.

Kathy LaSota heads up school board services with the Ohio School Boards Association. She says several factors help shape the style of a levy campaign. For instance, a large and diverse district requires more extensive outreach than a small, close knit one. But--

LaSota: “It also depends on whether the board of education decides to design a campaign that’s quiet, that’s under the radar, or whether they choose to run a campaign that’s full out.”

And that’s where political consultant Bill Burges comes in. He’s been hired to help both the Akron and Cleveland Schools get their levies passed.

Burges: “They needed to understand when was the best time for them to go to the ballot. They needed to understand public attitudes and what the public felt about what was important and what wasn’t important about education in the city.”

Cleveland School officials are hoping voter turnout for the presidential race will improve the odds for their 15 mill levy. At a campaign event in Cleveland, Schools CEO Eric Gordon is dipping his palms in purple paint to decorate posters. Gordon says Cleveland is taking a different approach to requesting tax increases than most districts.

Gordon: “We haven’t passed the last school issue since 1996 and we haven’t even asked since 2004. So, it’s not something that’s been before voters year after year after year. This really is the first time in a long time that voters have even been given the chance to support their schools.”

Political consultant Bill Burges says a key part of Cleveland’s strategy is to get the community to see the levy as a critical step in helping the district implement a host of reforms.

Burges: “In Cleveland, there’s a lot of good changes to come here. Good teachers, good technology, real world experiences, maybe a longer school day for some kids, restoring some things that have been absolutely devastated by financial cuts.”

Burges says there’s no magic bullet for ensuring levies pass, but telling the district’s story to a broad range of voters tends to be beneficial in the long run.

Regardless of the strategy, levy campaigns come with a price tag – sometimes a hefty one. State law prohibits using public dollars for campaign activities so district leaders often spend months fundraising. The latest campaign finance reports show Akron’s team has spent just under $140,000 while Cleveland’s team has spent $1.1 million.

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