New strategy needed to gain support for Niles schools


Tuesday’s defeat of a 5.6- mill, 10-year renewal property tax for the financially imploding Niles City Schools stings particularly hard. And that sting won’t be soothed anytime soon.

As wording on the ballot issue noted, passage of the levy was required for emergency requirements for school district operations. Unlike other districts where the term emergency sometimes appears to be loosely applied, no one in Niles could have disputed the dire financial woes of the district and need for levy passage to maintain at least status-quo revenue generation. After all, the state last February declared the 2,200-student city school district officially under fiscal emergency after projections of out-of-control deficits for the next five fiscal years.

That declaration brought with it the requirement for development of a financial-recovery plan under the auspices of a state oversight body known as the Financial Planning and Supervision Commission.

With an estimated loss of $1.3 million in annual revenue the existing levy brings in to the school district, the work of Niles school leaders in developing a plan within two months to address a projected $1.6 million deficit in 2023 for the state panel suddenly becomes all the more burdensome.

The renewal levy’s defeat, however, should come as no complete shocker. After all, voters in Niles have a lengthy history of opposition to local tax initiatives. Additional school levies were soundly rejected in November 2017 and May 2018 as was a substitute levy that would have combined the renewal and additional millage last November.

Clearly, district leaders have failed to adequately persuade their electorate of the need for consistent local revenue even though they have taken many concrete steps in recent months to cut costs. Those include adoption of a new health-care plan that saves the school system $500,000 yearly, new three-year contracts for district teachers and staff with no pay hikes and pay freezes for Superintendent Ann Marie Thigpen and all other administrators.

Now as the district prepares to place the defeated levy onto the November ballot for yet another try, we believe it and the state need to adopt a bolder, more aggressive strategy. Toward that end, we’d suggest the state supervisory commission schedule a community meeting or series of meetings to alert residents in no uncertain terms of the severity of the district’s fiscal woes and to hit hard on the negative impacts continued refusal to help stabilize the district’s bottom line will have on students, residents and the community.

Such a forum might provide a highly credible and compelling case to voters. It’s certainly worth a try.

LEVY DEFEATS ELSEWHERE

Of course, Niles was not the only school district in Mahoning and Trumbull counties to suffer defeat of school tax initiatives Tuesday.

Across the two counties, four of 12 school-district tax issues were rejected by voters. Though Niles was the only renewal school levy that fell to defeat in the Valley and only one of two statewide to fail, all additional tax measures – in West Branch, Brookfield and Newton Falls – were soundly deep-sixed.

On the brighter side, however, eight other renewal levies – in Campbell, Springfield, Liberty, Mathews, McDonald, Weathersfield, Bristol and Southington – gained voter support.

Still, the rate of school-levy passage in Mahoning and Trumbull counties of 66 percent falls well below that of the 76 percent passage rate statewide Tuesday, according to a compilation by the Ohio School Boards Association.

One factor that may have contributed to the lackluster support was our anemic voter turnout – 10.6 percent in Mahoning County and 14.5 percent in Trumbull County. In a nutshell, that means the final tallies resulted from decidedly minority rule of the majority. In McDonald, for example, a 4.3-mill, five-year renewal levy passed by merely one single solitary vote – 243 to 242.

Tuesday’s results also should send messages to Columbus. The continued trend of close calls on or voter repudiation of additional-tax issues and tax renewal initiatives should serve as yet another wake-up call to Ohio education leaders and state legislators to fix Ohio’s dysfunctional education system once and for all.

The state’s school funding system has been declared unconstitutional several times over the past 20 years, and despite some minor tinkering, it remains broken. Until that broken system is fully repaired, we expect support for local tax-levy appeals to remain lukewarm at best throughout our region and our state.

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