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Northeast Ohio schools face the headwinds of inflation, past failed attempts on 2022 levies

Supporters of the Parma City School District levy walked the main streets of Parma in early October to advocate for a yes vote on the levy.
Parma Partners in Education
Supporters of the Parma City School District levy walked the main streets of Parma in early October to advocate for a yes vote on the levy.

A handful of school districts across Northeast Ohio are hoping for voter approval of new-dollar levies and bond issues this November, despite some struggling to do so in the past.

This year, schools are facing headwinds from voters including the specter of inflation and collateral damage from the ongoing “culture wars” around teaching curricula in Ohio and elsewhere in the U.S.

At Parma City School District, voters have approved levies and bond issues just 3 times out of 19 attempts in recent years, including two failed attempts over the last two years to get a bond issue approved to build a new high school.

Charles Smialek, Parma’s superintendent, said the administration has listened to voters to try to “retool” the levy so that it’s more palatable. For one, the district is asking for less. It’s a 3.95-mill bond issue equivalent to about $11.50 per-month per $100,000 of property owners’ home values, compared to a 6.5 and 6.3-mill asks in the past.

The plan for the new construction has also changed. Previously, the plan was for two new campuses for grades six through 12. Now, the plan is to close two other high schools and build a new one on the current campus of Parma Senior High School, which will be more efficient than operating multiple schools and save on costs in the long term.

“Any time you can bring 17 career tech programs under the same roof, that’s just a phenomenal opportunity,” Smialek said. “We have really strong career tech programs everywhere, but right now, students have to travel across campuses… same thing in terms of advanced placement courses or College Credit Plus classes.”

Plus, the new building will mean a “21st-century” learning environment for students, with improved classroom space, technology and safety features, Smialek said.

Ang Schwark, parent of a first grader at Pleasant Valley Elementary School in Parma, said the new amenities are badly needed, and not just at Parma’s high schools. Most of Parma City School District’s buildings don’t have air conditioning, and all of the older buildings have asbestos in them.

Michele Tomecko, a parent of three current Parma students, said she has serious reservations about the levy; for one, the shifting of schools – with students being shuffled to the two other high schools while Parma Senior High School is being rebuilt - while construction occurs will present challenges for parents dropping students off.

“How are they going to get these kids to Normandy and Valley Forge?” she said. “The traffic is crazy as it is.”

Plus, she said her family is on a fixed income after her husband fell while working last year and suffered a traumatic brain injury, so she thinks the tax increase is too much for families like hers. She also worries about more tax increases on the horizon to fund further building renovations.

Schwark said she understands people are worried about costs, but, she said better buildings translate to better academic quality for students, which means a more significant investment in the health of the community in general.

“It’s our turn now to put our money into the community and into these kids,” she said. “Whether you have a kid in private school, it’s still your community; whether you’re retiring, your kids are all raised, okay your kids benefited from our community, it’s your turn to return the favor.”

Schwark and Smialek also said building a new building instead of renovating the old buildings is actually a fiscally sound decision; the Ohio Facilities Construction Commission is providing almost $72 million toward the $237 million project, but would not contribute if the district were to choose to renovate due to age of the buildings and thus how expensive it would be to make them like new.

Similar concerns in Rocky River
A levy committee over in Rocky River City Schools say they’re hearing similar concerns from local residents around the cost of a 4.9-mill levy – which is about $14.30 per month per $100,000 of home value. Kelly Frindt and Kimberly Miyoshi, co-chairs of the levy committee, said the goal of the levy – which failed in its last incarnation in May 2021 – is to continue to fund operations of the school district amid a time of rising costs.

“Should this levy fail, our school system will have to take a million dollars out of next school year’s budget and then an additional $3 million out of the budget for the following school year,” Miyoshi said. “So cuts will absolutely have to happen and that will really hamper the ability to offer the excellence that we offer in our school systems today.”

A small portion of the fund will also go toward funding some permanent improvements, including ADA-accessible seating at the football stadium, and build out the high school kitchen to bring warm lunches to kindergarten-through-fifth grade buildings that don’t have kitchens currently.

A group called Riverites for Fiscal Responsibility has formed around opposition to the levy, citing concerns with inflation and a “looming recession,” and argues that the teachers already have the “ninth-highest average salary” of over 600 Ohio school districts, according to the group’s website.

James Trutko, who spoke on behalf of the group via email, claimed the district is diverting resources, time and money toward “social activism.”

“The district has been wasting money and teacher time and resources on both CRT-inspired [Critical Race Theory] agenda and woke curriculum,” he said. ‘This focus has not yet significantly impacted proficiency scores but they will, if continued.”

Critical Race Theory is an academic concept that asserts that racism is baked into legal systems and policies. It is typically only included in specific college-level courses. It is not part of K-12 classroom curriculum in Ohio. That includes Rocky River.

Rocky River School District has the second-highest test scores of any school district in the state, Frindt and Miyoshi noted, while having the third-lowest tax millage of any school district in Cuyahoga County. Miyoshi said she follows her two students’ schooling closely and has never seen anything like what Trutko described in their educational material.

A levy and a bond issue in North Olmsted
The North Olmsted City School District, is seeking approval of a 7.8-mill combined operating levy and bond issue, with 5 mills going toward operating costs and 2.8 mills for a bond issue to build a new elementary school. That amounts to about $22.75 per month per $100,000 of home valuation. The district also failed in its attempt to get a levy passed in 2021.

“On the operating side, we have cut since the last time the district got additional or new operating money, over 100 staff members, and in just the past year, we cut $3 million from our operating expenses and closed two buildings,” said school superintendent David Brand.

He added that more cuts will need to come if this levy doesn’t pass; the district is in a “heavy deficit” and currently is projecting it won’t have funds to operate for the 2025 school year.

A push for newer facilities in Nordonia
Nordonia Hills City School District in northern Summit County is also seeking voter approval of a larger bond issue, at 7.75 mills, to fund consolidation of six school buildings into three brand new ones. Karen Byers, who is on the bond issue campaign committee for Nordonia schools, said the district needs modern new school buildings to educate students for a changing world; the oldest building in the district is over 100 years old, and the youngest was built in 1970.

Byers said she understands people have concerns about the high cost of the levy. She pointed to how Ohio funds schools, which is through a mix of state dollars and local property taxes which fluctuates based on the value of properties in a district.

“And some people continue to ask, why does Ohio fund this way?” she said. “And we don’t have an answer for that one.”

But Byers said she did have an answer for why the levy matters, for those who either don’t have a student in the district or don’t see the value in it. Improving education for the students means two things, she said, and it’s not just limited to Nordonia.

“One is, they (students) are going to get jobs that are higher-paying that are going to pay into Social Security,” Byers said, referencing ongoing challenges facing the country with depletion of those funds.

The other benefit? People who use services in the community are eventually going to run into these students.

“When you go into a medical facility or you go into a lawyer’s office or you go into a store and want to talk to the manager, how educated do you want that person to be that’s talking back to you? We say a lot of times that children are not learning what they need to learn,” she said. “Here’s the opportunity for you to do that.”

Levies across Northeast Ohio
There are plenty of other school districts throughout northeast Ohio who are seeking approval of levies. Many of them are simple renewals of old levies that don’t add to property owners’ tax bills, but there a handful of schools also seeking additional revenue or bond issues to fund new building construction.

A line of Cleveland Metropolitan School District school buses parked in Cleveland's Playhouse Square in fall 2022.
Conor Morris
Ideastream Public Media
With dozens of school levies on the ballot in Ohio each year, it’s important for voters to understand what they’re voting for since they have a direct impact on property taxes and school funding.

Conor Morris is the education reporter for Ideastream Public Media.
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