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Why It's So Hard for Rural Schools to Pass Levies

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Monday, April 22, 2013 at 6:00 AM

There are no walls or doors between classrooms at Warren Local schools. Instead, the school has put up bookshelves and lockers as makeshift walls.

Carrollton Schools in rural Carol County hasn't passed a levy since 1977. Union Local Schools in rural Belmont County hasn't passed an operating levy since 1976. And the mid 1990's was the last time officials at Warren Local Schools in rural Washington County managed to pass a levy for new funds to run the district.

Tom Gibbs, the superintendent at Warren Local, says he's tried to pass six levies in the last four years, and failed each time.

In fact, since 2000, Washington County has passed just 20 percent of its schools requests for new local money.

Compare that to Franklin County, which includes Columbus. It has passed 51 percent of all new school levy requests. Cuyahoga County, home to Cleveland, has passed 43 percent of theirs over the last 13 years.

Ohio has a rural-urban funding gap, and it shows.

[audio href="" title="Why It’s So Hard for Rural Schools to Pass Levies"][/audio]

It Shows

Warren Local teachers Joy Edgell, Danielle Rinard and Julie VanDyk say they lobby for their schools levies, but with little success.

Warren Local’s grade school is a remnant of the 1970’s open classroom movement. There are no walls or doors between classrooms, and few windows. Over the years the district added bookshelves and lockers as makeshift walls, but they’re only about shoulder length high.

"We have more and more kids that have special needs and it’s just tough for them to tune out," says first grade teacher Danielle Rinard.

Here’s the rest of the tab for not passing levies: Two school buildings closed, freezes in teacher pay, 90 positions eliminated and cuts in high school bussing.

It’s belt tightening to the point of punching more holes in the belt.

"I’m not necessarily saying that people don’t support the schools," Gibbs says. "It’s that they’re finding it more and more difficult to say that they can support the school through paying higher property tax."

Why People Won't Vote for School Levies

Karen Vancamp and Glenn Newman say schools could and should do more with the money they have, without asking taxpayers for new funds every year.

At an art gallery in nearby Marietta, Glenn Newman and Karen Vancamp sell everything from Thomas Kinkaid paintings to Ohio State Buckeye's gear. The couple, born and raised in Washington County, say local teachers are overpaid.

“Our average salaries are so low for the private sector and they see that they’re paying a lot of money to the teachers who have no more education, no more responsibility than they have," Vancamp says.

The median per capita income in Washington County is about 23,400 dollars, according to the latest census data. The median teacher salary at Warren Local is double that - more than 56,000 dollars. Keep in mind, only 15 percent of people in Washington County have a Bachelor’s degree or higher.

The couple says teachers should make sacrifices, like pay cuts of 25 to 30 percent.

And they should stop asking for a levy to build a new school.

“People would be willing to pay to fix the buildings you have," Vancamp

says. "But they’re not going to pay to build a new building that is not going to improve anybody’s education.”

And they say, Superintendent Gibbs and his staff aren’t very popular, calling them “elitist bureaucrats.”

But, at the end of the day, after all the local politics and financial debates, the couple says it ultimately comes down to one thing.

“The trust is broken.”

"The trust is broken."

And that trust has been broken for a long time.

Vancamp says it goes back to when several local districts were consolidated to form Warren Local Schools.

The wave of consolidation in the late 1960's and early 1970's hit rural districts particularly hard.

Back in the late 60’s Ohio and many other states opted to combine small school districts to make sizeable ones like Warren Local. But a lot of people lost their schools, and with it a significant part of their social life and local identity.

“There was a lot of that hometown pride," Newman says. "And it really persists in many ways even today.”

Vancamp and Newman were among the first to graduate from the newly consolidated district.

Vancamp says there was a lot of fanfare about moving into the new district with its brand new building. But things didn't turn out as well as many had hoped.

“After we got there I think we felt like we had gone from a nice school to a barn," she says. "It was kind of hayseed."

She says people used to refer to the new Warren Local School as "the cow palace."

"People hold grudges."

This is an argument Warren Local first grade teacher Julie Vandyk has heard many times before.

"People hold grudges," she says. "For something that happened 60 years ago and they’re going to bring it till the end. Which is a hard thing to swallow for me because I think we need to let go of the past and look towards the future."

Vandyk and her fellow teachers lobby for the levies the district puts on the ballot. They would like doors and walls between their classrooms, air conditioning in the school, and for the leaky roof in the high school to be fixed already.

But, they say, it's a tough battle against local voters who are not convinced the district needs the new funds.

Here’s the thing though – despite the failed levies, the budgetary diet – students here still perform well on state tests. The district is rated above average, and last year it was rated excellent.

Gibbs, the superintendent, says in an odd way, that too makes it harder to pass levies.

The next local levy battle will be in May of 2014.





Note: A previous version of this story identified Karen Shaner as the owner of the Marietta Art Gallery. Karen Shaner is an employee at the gallery, but not the owner. Karen Vancamp was the owner and the individual interviewed for this story.


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