Renewal of school levy may be tough sell in city

The president of the Youngstown Board of Education, Lock P. Beachum Sr., made two statements recently that show just how worried he is about the financial future of the troubled urban school district.

“It’s a renewal — it’s not a new tax,” Beachum, a former principal and teacher in the Youngstown system, said of the property tax levy that will be on the Nov. 6 general election ballot.

Why emphasize that point? Because the 10.4-mill tax the district is seeking is higher than the 9.5 mills now on the books. The larger amount is necessitated by the decrease in property values in the city since 2008, when voters approved the 9.5-mill levy.

Beachum stressed that the 10.4 mills will bring in the same amount of money — about $5.2 million a year — that has been generated by the current millage.

The second public statement from the board president that reflects his anxiety about the fiscal condition of the district is designed to reassure an increasingly restless public.

“This is not something we wanted to do,” he said of the tax levy.

In that, Beachum is absolutely right.

Several months ago, as the school board was contemplating the expiration of the current levy at the end of this year, we praised Beachum for insisting that the taxpayers deserved a break and, therefore, the property tax should be lowered.

He talked about the need for the administration to cut operating costs without affecting what was taking place in the classroom.

As a result, Superintendent Connie Hathorn and the school board determined earlier this year that there was no need for the entire 9.5 mills to be renewed because the district’s finances had been stabilized as a result of state-declared fiscal emergency. The state auditor imposed the emergency in 2006; it was lifted last year. A five-year forecast required by the state showed the books to be balanced.

But earlier this year, the district was informed by the state that it would be getting about $1 million less in funding than expected because of the loss of several hundred students. In the public education system in Ohio, the money follows the student. Charter schools, vouchers and open enrollment are siphoning money from school districts, especially those in urban areas like Youngstown.

That, coupled with reductions in the state’s per-pupil funding, means that the troubled city district — it is now under state-designated academic watch — is in choppy financial waters.

Economic recession

But, taxpayers are in less of a giving mood as they were before the national economic recession began in late 2008, as then Republican President George W. Bush was leaving office.

It isn’t only the slowing revenue stream that is cause for concern. The academic recovery plan developed by the state academic distress commission carries a price tag of at least $500,000 for books and other supplies to bolster the 7th through 12th grade curriculum.

Beachum and his colleagues on the board of education were sincere about reducing the property tax millage, but now the district can ill afford to lose money. The 9.5-mill tax being collected will not generate the same amount of money it now does. That’s why 10.5 mills are necessary.

The challenge facing the school system is to persuade the voters that this isn’t just a money grab. In today’s environment, that’s a tall order.

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