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Education

Strained district tackles new tax head-on

By John Published: May 9, 2010
Nancy Haney with some of the levy signs collected from around the community after Northwest School District voters approved a school levy after 10 previous defeats. (Paul Tople/Akron Beacon Journal)

By John Higgins
Beacon Journal staff writer

Supporters of Northwest schools defied Ohio history and the odds on Tuesday when they passed a 1 percent earned income tax the first new money for operations that Northwest voters have approved since 1992.

The district, which includes Canal Fulton, Clinton and a portion of New Franklin, had failed 10 times in five years to persuade voters to raise their taxes for daily expenses such as running buses, paying teachers and keeping the lights on.

That was the history; here were the odds and why other struggling districts may look to Northwest's campaign as a model.

According to preliminary election analysis from the Ohio School Boards Association and the Buckeye Association of School Administrators:

• Ohio voters on Tuesday rejected two-thirds of the 104 attempts to pass new taxes for daily school operations and construction bonds.

• The failure rate was higher 76 percent when requests for new operating funds were taken alone.

• And as for efforts to secure income taxes for school operations for the period 2003-2009, the record is even worse: 77 percent failed, or 46 of 60.

How did Northwest do it?

Having 8-year-old Steven Sowards, a second-grader at Northwest Elementary School, on their side certainly helped. Unable to reach campaign officials to get a yard sign, he made his own with his father, Randy Sowards.

When the volunteer in charge of lawn signs saw the homemade one in their yard, she made sure they got a real one, too, one of a record 680 distributed more than double the number used in the 2008 levy campaign, a presidential year.

Those kinds of personal connections and an ample war chest made Northwest a winner Tuesday.

A lengthy effort

Five years ago, the district began trying to replace a 12.8-mill property tax that was narrowly approved in 1992 to raise $1.5 million a year for daily operations.

Just to keep up with inflation, that 1992 levy would have to generate $2.25 million today, but Ohio law forbids any levy to collect more than the amount originally approved by voters.

Northwest tried to pass small levies and big levies in general elections, primary elections and special elections.

''We were just in that ballot cycle,'' said Bruce Beadle, who is now on the school board but was just another resident then. ''Put something on the ballot. It failed. Put something on the ballot. It failed.''

The district even tried a three-quarter percent income tax instead of a property tax, but that, too, went down in flames.

''I think voters thought at that time, 'Hey, look, they're trying to slide something in on us here,' '' Beadle said.

Meanwhile, the district laid off teachers, cut expenses, raised fees to play in sports and eliminated high school busing. Northwest began running deficits and slipped into fiscal caution and possible state control.

The district's hole was so deep that even passing a 15-mill levy wouldn't have brought everything back that had been lost since 2008.

Northwest failed at the ballot for the 10th time last May.

''One of the problems of going back 10 times is levy fatigue, and not so much on the voters but on your supporters,'' said Scott Ebright, spokesman for the Ohio School Boards Association. ''How many times can you give up two or three months of your life for this one cause and then have it fail and have to do that again with a month off?''

Another approach

Instead of trying yet again, Superintendent Bill Stetler decided it was time to ask the community point blank: What do you want?

The district hired a Hudson public relations firm for five months to improve communication with residents, which included conducting a survey last June that revealed that the district had a perceived trust problem on handling finances.

During the fall, Beadle and parent Debbie Messner organized more than 30 informal coffees in homes throughout the district, where folks could hash out grievances and envision the future they wanted. To ensure a free-flowing discussion, the superintendent was not invited.

Meanwhile, a committee of business and community leaders reviewed the district's finances and made recommendations for a ballot issue. Again, Stetler was kept out to maintain the group's independence.

The committee recommended a 1 percent earned income tax, and that's what the school board decided to put on the May 4 ballot after holding a large community meeting to consider the options. The tax will raise an estimated $2.2 million annually, or about 12 percent of the operating budget for the 2,300-student district.

Campaign gets backing

The campaign got an early boost from Support Ohio Schools, a nonprofit formed in early 2009 to assist small districts that generally cannot afford campaign consultants and typically rely on well-intentioned citizens and woefully inadequate fundraising.

''What I found was that the campaigns were not well run,'' said the organization's founder, Jerry Rampelt, a former teacher and researcher for the Ohio Education Association. ''It wasn't because of lack of motivation or enthusiasm; it's a lack of expertise.''

His organization charges a $275 annual fee to levy campaigns and raises the rest through foundation support and grants. Rampelt met with Northwest staff and laid out the plan.

''I said, 'Folks, you're going to have to go out to your community, get more people to donate; the employees, you're going to have to donate, you're going to have to go door to door, you're going to have to talk to people in the community.' I didn't run the campaign for them. I set the foundation.''

Rampelt's research indicates that successful campaigns require at least $2 per voter. The Northwest campaign raised more than $4 per voter nearly $22,000 through April 14, according to its campaign finance report.

That money helped pay for the public relations firm already working with the district, the Impact Group, which advised the campaign on how to get its message out.

The work that volunteers had done in the community during the fall made that job a lot easier.

''They absolutely just worked their tails off,'' said Tom Speaks, co-founder of the Impact Group. ''They did so many communications and so many coffees and so many presentations. They really got the word out.''

The coffees also provided the theme for the campaign.

''The citizens had really thoughtful, insightful and powerful input,'' Speaks said. ''The theme of the campaign, which we all came up with, was 'Your plan, your vote.' ''

Now all they had to do was get that message out and get it out often with phone calls, fliers, e-mails, lawn signs and personal contact.

Businesses chip in

Businesses donated such services as printing for the fliers and the use of a professional telemarketing call center in Belden Village.

''They actually created visual screens for us so we could do calls,'' Beadle said. ''The first call we did to all the parents. The second call we did to senior citizens, more informative.''

The third call went to everyone on their lists.

The community involvement in the campaign was unprecedented. Hundreds of volunteers contributed thousands of hours. Yard signs showed up all over the district and on roads leading into the district.

''We had 250 signs during the Code Red campaign [in November 2008] and we had difficulty giving them away,'' Beadle said.

Parent Nancy Haney was charged with distributing 680 signs in this year's campaign and it wasn't difficult.

She saw Steven Sowards' handmade sign and made sure he got a real one, too.

''They were just so excited that I stopped because they really wanted one,'' Haney said.

Not everyone was supportive, though.

When an anonymous flier urging a ''no'' vote was placed in mailboxes complaining that teachers' contracts were overly generous, the campaign responded with rebuttal fliers.

''When an opposition group makes a charge that you think is not accurate, you have to do something about it,'' Rampelt said. ''You can't just let it sit there.''

Getting out the vote

The key in a low-turnout election (Stark County had about 24 percent of its voters turn out on Tuesday) is to target likely supporters and make sure they get to the polls.

By Election Day, the campaign had identified nearly 5,000 supporters. In every previous try except the 2008 presidential election, they had needed just 2,815 yes votes to win.

Volunteers phoned through the lists of supporters in the closing hours of the election on Tuesday to make sure they all got to the polls.

The issue passed with 2,878 votes, 815 more than the opposition.

The superintendent didn't lose sight of the broader struggle on election night.

''At this point, the greatest challenge facing all of us is to figure out to transition from a community divided by the levy wars that we've experienced during the last five years to working together as we continue to struggle with our national economy,'' Stetler said.


John Higgins can be reached at 330-996-3792 or jhiggins@thebeaconjournal.com. Read the education blog at http://education.ohio.com/.
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