By John Higgins
Beacon Journal staff writer
The Akron Board of Education endorsed Issue 17 in a politically charged vote that could have repercussions beyond the Nov. 2 election.
Issue 17 is the Akron City charter amendment that would divert about $13 million in income tax revenue currently devoted to the school construction project to safety forces and snow removal over the next three years.
Board Vice President Jason Haas, who cast the sole no vote in a 6-1 decision, said the board — which promised voters seven years ago that the income tax increase would be used only for schools — will have a hard time explaining its support for Issue 17 the next time the board has to ask voters for a levy increase.
''There's no reason to believe that this is the only time that this issue can go before voters,'' Haas said. ''And there's no reason to believe that it has to go to voters in conjunction with paying for safety forces.''
The amendment would approve the diversion of a third of the tax increase each of the three years. It would also extend the collection period of the quarter percentage point tax increase by five years until 2038.
The city estimates the extension would raise $60 million to $100 million for Akron's share of the nearly $800 million school construction project.
That money will be needed to build the remaining 19 schools on the list to the same standards as the 21 schools already completed and the eight schools under construction or in their design phase, according to school and city officials.
The state has agreed to pay 59 percent of the basic costs and Akron's income tax provides the other 41 percent, plus anything the state won't help fund.
Those extras, which have included more classroom space for special education, have cost the district more than twice what was expected.
Lower state support because of declining enrollment, unexpected environmental expenses at some building sites and rising constructions costs — from about $160 a square foot to $212 a square foot — have also contributed to the projected shortfall.
Board members supporting the endorsement said that they wanted to be sure they saw the project through to the end.
''The fact of the matter is that we know that an extension of the income tax is a good thing,'' said James Hardy. ''It's going to help us to meet the needs that the children have going forward.''
Board members emphasized that Issue 17 would not affect the pace of construction and that no money from the district would be transferred to the city.
The construction project is paid for by selling bonds. So far, the city has sold about $260 million in bonds and the money is in an interest-bearing account.
The city then repays the bonds with the income tax proceeds. The city has enough on hand to continue making bond payments while diverting a third of the tax each year for three years to safety forces and snow removal.
The additional five years of collection would provide more than enough to fulfill the bond obligations and bolster the local share to ensure the remaining schools are built to the same standards as the first half of the project, officials say.
City Council President Marco Sommerville, finance director Diane Miller-Dawson and Public Service Director Rick Merolla asked for the board's endorsement in person.
Sommerville reminded the board that the city, which had not raised the income tax since 1981, put the schools' needs before the city's needs in 2003 by encouraging voters to use the income tax for school construction. Now the city needs some of that money back temporarily.
''It makes no sense to have new schools and the streets aren't safe,'' Sommerville said. ''It makes no sense to have new schools when the snow comes and you don't have anybody to plow the snow away. It makes no sense when someone gets sick at school, a student, a teacher, whatever, and you don't have EMS people to respond.''
At the last regular board meeting, Haas said the reaction he's seen to the proposal has been overwhelmingly negative.
''In the days following the announcement of this ballot issue, several dozen people reached out to me by e-mail, by phone calls, by stalking me wherever they could find me in town,'' Haas said at the previous meeting. ''Not one, not a single person, was in favor of the proposal. The most common complaint was simple: 'I voted for new schools, not this.' I echo that sentiment. I, too, voted for new schools.''
The Rev. Curtis T. Walker Sr., the board's president, said that the board often changes positions when it receives new information. He said the new information about the state of the school construction program calls for an extension of the tax.
''Now, do we get hit from it as school board members? Yes, but no different than the ones we get when we deal with most of our financial pieces,'' Walker said.