By John Higgins
Beacon Journal staff writer
The owner of several office buildings in the Revere school district spent about $7,200 mailing postcards to residents urging them to vote against the Revere levy on last November's ballot.
It was a good investment.
The levy's failure saved the owner Fairlawn Real Estate Associates about $70,000 in additional school taxes, a 9-to-1 return, according to a Beacon Journal analysis of tax and election records.
In an organized campaign rarely seen in Northeast Ohio, levy opponents spent almost $13,000. Supporters spent almost $2,700.
Fairlawn Real Estate Associates didn't give cash, but the amount the corporation spent on behalf of the campaign was the single-largest contribution.
The contribution amount is identified on election records as ''fair market value,'' but there is no indication of who specifically at Fairlawn Real Estate Associates authorized the expenditure.
Beachwood developer Mark Munsell, a principal partner in Fairlawn Real Estate Associates, did not return three phone calls over the last week seeking comment. John Dellagnese of Dellagnese and Associates, which used to own and now manages the properties, also did not return a phone call.
The district will try again in May to pass a 4.85-mill operating levy, but this time, supporters are more organized and say they'll raise enough money to compete.
The public leader of the opposition, Larry Chlebina, is treasurer of Citizens for Responsible School Administration, the official name of the political action committee opposing new school taxes in Revere.
Chlebina, the founder and president of the money-management firm Chlebina Capital, believes the district's finances aren't as dire as school officials say.
He's also more optimistic about the economic forecast
than the district's treasurer.
Chlebina said he does not know who exactly from Fairlawn Real Estate Associates made the donation.
''The phone just rings and people ask if they can help,'' Chlebina said. ''I'm not sure who was the main person behind [the Fairlawn Real Estate Associates contribution].''
However, he said the campaign had much more support than the report would indicate, and the election results back him up.
''We're open to just about anybody who wants to support us,'' Chlebina said. ''It's funny, a lot of people were giving us verbal support, but were afraid to give money because they didn't want to show up on that report. I can understand that because putting my name to this, I get a lot of abuse from people that think we're just out against schools, and that's anything but true.''
Chlebina one of only three individual donors contributed $2,000 to the campaign.
More than half came from Fairlawn Real Estate Associates, which gave an in-kind donation of $7,260 for ''postcards mailing/printing,'' according to the campaign's finance report.
Ohio law allows corporations to make campaign contributions. Chlebina said that Fairlawn Real Estate Associates paid for the mailings, but did not author the content, which criticized teacher pay and the district's fiscal management.
''It was all directed by us,'' Chlebina said.
Owner of buildings
Fairlawn Real Estate Associates owns several office buildings in the Embassy Parkway area at I-77 and State Route 18 a 125-acre business park originally owned and almost completely developed by John Dellagnese.
Some of the park is in the Copley-Fairlawn district, and some is in the Revere district.
''As with most real estate deals, there are a group of partners that own Fairlawn Real Estate Associates LLC,'' said Regina Shaw, chief financial officer of John Dellagnese and Associates, which manages the properties.
Munsell in 2006 led an investor group that purchased from Dellagnese a major interest in the corporations that owned those buildings.
Munsell also is the president and owner of Munsell Realty Advisors which separately donated $500 to the campaign. Munsell Realty Advisors is the broker for the properties.
Fairlawn Real Estate Associates owns 11 properties in Fairlawn and Bath eight of the them are on Embassy Parkway in the Revere school district.
The partnership pays almost $444,000 in Revere school taxes, according to the latest figures from the Summit County auditor.
That's about 10 percent of the nearly $4.5 million the district received from commercial property taxes in 2010, according to Revere treasurer David Forrest.
Commercial property owners pay about 15 percent of the district's local taxes, compared with nearly 40 percent for neighboring Copley-Fairlawn schools and almost 31 percent in Akron schools, according to the county auditor.
Had the Revere levy passed, Fairlawn Real Estate Associates would have owed another $70,000 for Revere school taxes a 16 percent increase.
Property taxes matter in the real estate market, especially in a struggling economy, Shaw said. A 16 percent increase in school taxes could be passed through to the building's tenants, but that would make them less competitive.
''It hurts,'' Shaw said. ''All expenses have an impact on it. Real estate taxes just seem to be a major portion of the operating expenses on a property.''
Shaw played no role in the campaign contribution and didn't know who decided to support the effort to defeat the levy.
However, she pointed out that the voters turned it down, not Fairlawn Real Estate Associates.
''They can't vote,'' Shaw said. ''It was the voters of the school district who voted the levy down.''
Support for levy
A new political action committee supporting passage of a new levy formed in November called Families and Community Together for Schools or F.A.C.T.S.
The group's president, David Gifford, said supporters realized that past campaigns were well-meaning, but unprepared to face organized opposition.
''People were involved, but I think there was a sense the feeling is: 'Hey it's Revere, right, we've got a good school, people are going to support it,' ,'' Gifford said. ''I think they underestimated the message that the opposition could create.''
The group has signed up more than 250 members.
''Revere makes Richfield and Bath what they are,'' Gifford said.
''It makes people want to be here. We felt that we needed to highlight that and come out as a community to really say we support the system and really have it in a more structured format. Spot on, we realized that to do that, we have to reach out and touch the voters and that means direct mail campaigns, advertisements, and we need funding to do that.''
Gifford, who works for Microsoft in field sales for Ohio, has two children in the district with another attending Revere next year.
He said the campaign a separate effort from the existing pro-levy committee will focus on the district's positive effects on the students and in the communities of Bath and Richfield.
''We are a parent and community-based organization, working very closely with the schools we meet with the schools, we understand the facts, we understand how the financing works but we're still separate from them,'' Gifford said.
They hope to pass both the renewal levy on the Feb. 8 ballot, which would not raise taxes, and the 4.85-mill operating levy on the May ballot, which would be an additional tax.
''Both are vital for the success of the schools,'' Gifford said.
Chlebina said he also supports the district's renewal request.
''If they don't get that, they would be in bad shape,'' Chlebina said.
But until the district cracks down on the salaries of its teachers and administrators, which Chlebina believes are too high, he intends to oppose requests for new money, including the May levy.
''The only reason they need more money, outside of the renewal, would be if they want to continue giving excessive pay raises to everybody, including the administrators,'' Chlebina said. ''People think we're against the schools. We want strong schools. We support strong schools. Like anything else, they have to be managed efficiently.''