News earlier this month that the Poland Board of Education will place a five-year, 5.9-mill additional operating levy on the Nov. 6 ballot has unleashed a tsunami of passionate protest among many in one of most respected and best performing school districts in the Mahoning Valley.
Judging by those passions that range from polite questioning to outright outrage and the school board’s 0-3 record of winning additional tax-levy approval over the past two years, the coming five months will prove critical to the board’s mission of gaining voters’ blessings on an additional $2.1 million annually in local tax revenue promoted to keep the school district financially afloat through 2016.
The protests target familiar themes in Poland and many other fiscally-strapped school districts in the Valley and Ohio: overly compensated teachers and staff with bloated benefits packages, misguided district spending priorities, insufficient efforts at finding creative ways to cut costs, among them.
That’s why it is absolutely imperative that the board and administration blanket the community with clear reasons why the levy is necessary and what dangers loom should the levy fail.
Toward that end, the board is off to a fair start. It has planned a town-hall meeting in September with the community and it has outlined major reasons for the levy before its 3-2 vote to place it on the ballot.
Much more action and public transparency will be needed, however, if the board hopes to break its long losing streak at the polls come November. As it organizes its levy campaign, it must ensure its message is loud, clear and, above all, credible. It must convince voters that the additional tax burden represents the last resort to fiscal stability, not the first, quick, convenient and knee-jerk reaction to pending financial fallout.
What the board has done
Poland Board of Education President Larry Dinopoulos says that he understands voters’ anger, but adds it should be directed toward the state, which has sharply reduced state aid to most districts and disproportionately reduced that aid to more affluent districts such as Poland. At the local level, Dinopoulos and the four other board members can point to a hodgepodge of initiatives over the past two years to rein in district costs: reductions in busing, eliminating dozens of staff positions, not replacing retiring workers, wage and step freezes in negotiated contracts and pay-to-play policies for athletics and some extra-curricular student activities.
In spite of these and other measures, clearly many voters remain skeptical. Questions over the extent of cutbacks, the scope of health-care coverage and co-pays for employees, the district’s spending priorities including those for the high school stadium, the impact of declining enrollment on school facilities and the details of a proposed open enrollment policy should the fall levy fail have some district residents continuing to question the board and administration’s integrity.
If the district hopes to achieve levy victory in the fall, it must work diligently to close that credibility gap. One solid starting point, as proposed by district resident and former Struthers Schools Superintendent Sandra DiBacco, would be to bring in an outside consultant to analyze district finances and devise its own list of conclusions and recommendations.
Regardless of whether that strategy is affordable or feasible, Poland school leaders nonetheless should employ a variety of communication channels — multiple town-hall forums, mailings to residents, social media usage, door-to-door campaigns, community rallies, phone banks — to ensure they respond fully, clearly and credibly to the specific concerns of the school district’s cynics. Doing so could build renewed community trust and a greater likelihood of renewed community support at the polls Nov. 6.