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Most new school levies failed Tuesday. Northeast Ohio districts are navigating the fallout

Parma City School District headquarters.
Ryan Loew
Ideastream Public Media
"We have a renewal in 2024 that we clearly can't afford to lose, that's an expiring 10-year emergency levy," said Superintendent Charles Smialek. "We haven't had new operating money since 2011."

Many voters across the state were not in the mood to approve requests for new money from school districts, Tuesday's election results show. That's left several Northeast Ohio districts to navigate the financial fallout.

Just 33% of new school tax requests were approved Tuesday statewide, with 15 of 46 issues passing, according to the Ohio School Board Association. That's the lowest success rate for these bond issues and levy requests since 2007 when the country was on the cusp of the Great Recession.

Springfield Local School District, a small school district outside Akron, saw a new operating levy narrowly defeated Tuesday night.The school district has had to make significant cuts to everything from busing to electives in music and arts to, most recently, reading tutors, said Cynthia Frola, president of Springfield’s board of education.

“I honestly don't know what else we could possibly cut,” she said.

Frola’s district is considered to be in fiscal distress by the state of Ohio and hasn’t had a new operating money levy approved since 2000, although it did see a bond issue approved in 2010 to build a new high school. She said the school board will need to meet to see if further cuts are needed and to determine if they should pursue another levy attempt later this year.

New operating levies seek additional taxes and are always more difficult to pass than simple levy renewals, which ask voters to pay the same amount of taxes they already do. But even levy renewals have been less likely to pass this year than in the past, according to the Ohio Association of School Boards. Last year, 88% of levy renewals passed statewide. This year, only 72% passed.

Some districts, like Parma City School District, are moving forward with some plans despite the lack of levy or bond-issue approval but face challenging questions about future plans to build new facilities.

The district still plans to demolish Parma Senior High School and move students to Normandy and Valley Forge high schools, said Superintendent Charles Smialek. Parma schools will also close an elementary school, saving at least $3.1 million a year.

But plans to build a new high school on the site of Parma Senior High are on hold. The district had more than $70 million in matching funds it could have used from the Ohio Facilities Construction Commission, but that funding is only available through September. Any future matching funds will require a lengthy assessment process first, so the district can't put the bond issue on the ballot again in November.

Smialek added the district will need to be selective about future levies it pursues, with a forecast showing deficit spending by 2027.

"We have a renewal in 2024 that we clearly can't afford to lose, that's an expiring 10-year emergency levy," Smialek said. "We haven't had new operating money since 2011."

Voters have approved levies and bond issues in Parma just three times out of 21 attempts over the last two decades.

Smialek said it's difficult for Parma to pass school levies for a number of likely reasons: there are a number of retirees on fixed incomes; people have “long memories” about what he called financial mismanagement from past administrations and enrollment continues to decline, which means there are fewer residents with children in the district. There are currently roughly 9,000 students enrolled down from a high of 26,000 years ago, Smialek said.

A bond issue that failed at Wooster City Schools also puts the district’s plan to build a new middle school and elementary school on hold, but Superintendent Gabe Tudor said the district remains “committed” to its facilities plans.

Voters in some Northeast Ohio districts, like Beachwood and Canton school districts, did approve bond issues to improve buildings, but it was a narrow win in Canton’s case.

Superintendent Jeff Talbert said the district is grateful to the Canton city voters for supporting the construction of two new elementary schools.

“We look forward to the opportunity to build two new state-of-the-art educational facilities for our elementary students knowing that having modern, safe, and exceptional learning spaces will strengthen our neighborhoods and promote educational excellence,” Talbert wrote in a statement. “These new buildings will allow us to further strengthen our entire elementary program by returning to neighborhood K-6 elementary schools.”

Beachwood schools will also be able to move forward with building two new elementary schools. The Beachwood City Council agreed to pause levying the city’s property tax for up to three years during the first three years of its new bond issue.

“With the approval of this bond issue, the Beachwood community is investing in education for its future generations. We will now be able to maintain our tradition of educational excellence and provide the inspiring, high-quality and secure facilities our students and staff deserve,” Superintendent Robert P. Hardis said in a statement.

The Ohio Legislature’s Fair School Funding Plan, which was partially implemented over the last two years, is meant to reduce schools’ reliance on school levies passing to fund operations by providing state funding based on the actual cost of students’ education, according to Policy Matters Ohio. The Ohio House’s version of the state budget includes continued support for that plan over the next two years.

Conor Morris is the education reporter for Ideastream Public Media.