© 2024 Ideastream Public Media

1375 Euclid Avenue, Cleveland, Ohio 44115
(216) 916-6100 | (877) 399-3307

WKSU is a public media service licensed to Kent State University and operated by Ideastream Public Media.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

More than half of Ohio school levies failed in the March 2024 election

A sign supporting a school levy at Medina City School District that's on the ballot in March 2024, seen from a roadway in Medina County in early February.
Conor Morris
Ideastream Public Media
A sign supporting a school levy at Medina City School District that was on the ballot in March 2024. Medina's school levy was voted down by about 5 percentage points, and they weren't alone; the vast majority of schools' requests for new taxes were rejected this year.

Just 17% of all Ohio school districts' requests for new tax money were approved by voters this election cycle - six out of 37 requests - a trend that was mirrored in northeast Ohio. Several advocates with local levy campaigns suggested inflation, voter apathy and even political polarization could have a hand in the levies' failure.

More than half of all levies in Ohio failed this year, with just 45 of 93 issues approved by voters, according to statistic compiled by the Ohio Association of School Boards. Simple renewals of levies, which are typically less controversial and do not call for any tax increases, failed for school districts including Strongsville, Garfield Heights and Brunswick.

Requests for increases to taxes in Northeast Ohio - be they bond issues, to fund new buildings, or levies for additional revenue - were voted down in Medina, Mogadore, Richmond Heights and Buckeye Local Schools in Ashtabula County. There were a few successes, including a narrow six-vote approval of a bond issue at Brooklyn City School District, at least according to unofficial results. The Cuyahoga County Board of Elections is expected to certify election totals Monday.

The Ohio School Board Association last year had said 33% of new school tax requests were approved during the May primary election, with 15 of 46 issues passing. At the time, the association said that was the lowest success rate for these bond issues and levy requests since 2007, when the country was on the cusp of the Great Recession; this year's levy performance was even worse than that, although fewer requests for tax increases were on the ballot.

Melissa Hunter, who sat on the bond issue committee for Nordonia Hills City School District, said several factors were at play that likely caused the issue to fail by almost a 2-1 margin. She said it usually takes the mixed-income district - which covers Northfield, Sagamore Hills and Macedonia in Summit County - multiple attempts to get any levy passed. Inflation also doesn't help, she added.

"The economy has gotten a lot better, but I think consumer sentiment is still catching up with that," Hunter said. "And the reality is that the inflation on a lot of costs is not going to go back down. And so people have to adjust to the new normal in some sense."

Additionally, she said K-12 education issues have increasingly become polarized in the country, with "culture war" issues - like opposition to diversity, equity and inclusion measures - feeding into voter disapproval of new funding for schools.

"That's something that we're going to hopefully be able to move past at some point," she said, noting they'll be trying some different strategies with another attempt in November.

Those strategies will include more in-person outreach, less reliance on social media - which she said has become "toxic" in some local online spaces - and identifying middle-of-the-road voters and disenfranchised voters for one-on-one conversations with district leaders to answer any questions they might have.

Levy committee members at the Ravenna City School District are also looking at similar outreach strategies, with the failure now of three consecutive attempts at an operating levy. Connie Bennett, co-chair of the Ravenna Citizens Levy Committee, and Laura Wunderle, deputy treasurer for the group, said challenges include inflation hitting many voters in their district hard and low voter turnout. The district serves many low-income families, including renters who are concerned about rent increases and senior citizens living on a fixed income. The district hasn't gotten any new operating money approved by voters since 2005.

"We've lost 14-and-a-half teaching staff in reductions already," Wunderle said. "And more will happen since the levy did not pass."

Voter turnout was only about 25% in the recent election, Bennett and Wunderle said, suggesting more direct outreach will be needed.

"We've noticed that we're missing a lot of our district families," Wunderle added. "So a lot of the people who are most impacted by the positive effects of passing a levy aren't voting."

Despite the poor overall performance this election cycle for Ohio's school levy campaigns, Jeff Chambers, director of communication services for the Ohio Association of School Boards, cautioned against drawing any conclusions based on one election cycle's worth of data. He said levies fared more poorly this year than the last time there was a March primary election in Ohio, but, beyond that, each district is dealing with its own unique circumstances.

"It's difficult to say what the [specific] challenges may be," he said, when asked about challenges facing schools' levy attempts. "Every district and the community they serve are different. Districts will look at what they put on the ballot and listen to their community to determine if they need to make changes. These may be anything from changing the millage of the levy to making cuts. When a district puts an issue on the ballot, they are doing so because a need exist. The need is still there."

Conor Morris is the education reporter for Ideastream Public Media.