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Ohio's Super Tuesday voters will decide on over 100 individual school district funding questions
Hordes of voters across ten states will head to the polls on Tuesday, March 6 to vote in this year's Presidential primary nominating contests. Voters throughout Ohio, though, will once again find their ballots occupied by a slew of school district funding proposals. This situation, quite unique to Ohio, is a result of a school funding system in which the bulk of funds come directly from local school districts, with tax and levy rates that must be approved directly by voters.
This election day alone, Ballotpedia lists 76 property tax levy initiatives up for a vote across the state's school districts, along with 18 income tax questions, and 15 bond measures. This past November, just a few short months ago, there were over 180 school tax issues on the ballot. The results were mixed. Most renewal levies passed easily, in keeping with a success rate of around 90% over the past three years. New taxes and levies, though, did not fare as well. Only about a quarter of new proposals were approved by voters.
Interestingly, voters' rejection of so many new taxes and levies came in the same election that repealed the controversial SB 5. That law was designed to hold back the explosion in costs to local governments and school districts through steps like eliminating collective bargaining of health care benefit costs, and locking employee contributions at a minimum of 15%.
The trend of voters facing so many school funding issues is hardly new. A 2007 study conducted by the Education Tax Policy Institute examined the number and success rates of school district operating levies. As of the study's publication, there were 32 different types of school levies listed by the state that could be utilized for funding. Looking at four of the most common operating levies alone, it found a dizzying 3,433 operating levies on the ballot from February, 1994 through November, 2006. That works out to an average of 264 operating levies per year.
Of those levies, the overall success rate was 54.6%. Certain types of operating levies, however, fared better than others. The most successful were term limited (67.7%) and emergency (58.6%) property tax levies. Perhaps not surprisingly, these two types of operating levies can only be approved for a period of 1-5 years.
Another notable study relevant to the array of levies and taxes going before Ohio voters on Super Tuesday, published in the Journal of Education Finance, attempted to quantify the cost to school districts of placing a levy before voters and campaigning for its approval. It accounted for a range of expenses such as statistical analysis, volunteer coordination, facilities, marketing, and supplies. Costs of the levies in the five districts studied ranged from estimates between $9,000 and $18,000 in the lowest cost district, and a whopping $121,000 to $154,000 in the most expensive case.
While most of the country will be monitoring Ohio's choice for a Republican Presidential candidate, some attention ought to be paid to the success or failure of the many school funding decisions facing voters. School districts across the country are struggling to balance their budgets, and Ohio's are no exception. The state's unique and in fact quite confusing funding system means that, should voters decide against raising their own taxes, districts will have little place to turn besides funding cuts or simply crossing their fingers and trying again in a few months.