COVENTRY TWP.:

It’s a sign of contention in a community split again by a school levy.

In orange spray-painted letters, two 4-by-8-foot sheets of plywood read:

“VOTE NO / SCHOOL LEVY / MAY 7TH.”

About 21,000 motorists pass the sign on Manchester Road each day. There’s an occasional honk of approval. Sometimes, a disgruntled parent or levy supporter will pull over to question the sign owner about his views.

Even students take notice, scoffing at the sign as they walk home from the high school just three-quarters of a mile north.

Owner Anthony Kinsinger periodically paints over graffiti on the sign that spreads to his store windows. Each morning, he surveys his often stolen yard signs that also encourage the nearly 9,000 voters throughout the community to oppose the upcoming levy.

But defeating the school levy isn’t Kinsinger’s job, though his out-of-town customers commend him for the effort. He runs a construction company, and the negative attention hasn’t hurt business a bit, he said.

Next door, Deborah Meredith can’t say the same about her costume shop.

She owns the property and rents out the northern piece to Kinsinger. On the other end of her building, tattered blue strands of fabric cling to the brick where a pro-levy sign was ripped off the wall.

Thrust into the middle of a debate over property taxes and school support, Meredith allowed the school to hang the sign. She doesn’t know who removed it.

“It’s hard to proclaim neutrality,” Meredith said, leaning against the counter in her shop.

Unlike Kinsinger, one of the community’s most vocal levy opponents, Meredith reluctantly plans to vote for the combined 5.99-mill bond issue and permanent improvement levy May 7, even though she has more reasons to vote against it.

She doesn’t think the kids deserve the money. And she would have far more to pay in additional property taxes than the average Coventry homeowner.

But she concedes the 34-year, $28.3 million bond issue, which would afford a new high school while converting the existing high school into a K-5 building, would stop the hemorrhaging of hundreds of thousands of dollars in piecemeal repairs each year.

She knows all about repairs.

Meredith holds an uncommon perspective as a taxpayer and business owner. She also owns two commercial properties: the storefront on Manchester Road and a former school building, the deteriorating Lakewood, which she has transformed into a business emporium.

The state doesn’t acknowledge what Meredith knows: her community. The residents are not as rich as the luxury homes along the lake would suggest.

And therein lies the financial paradox of the state funding system.

Of the more than 600 school districts in Ohio, only 59 boast higher property values than Coventry, yet 298 districts have higher median incomes.

Because the lake location doubles or even triples home values, the Ohio Department of Education characterizes the Coventry district as wealthy, with a community that can support its students. Therefore, the state distributes far less funding to Coventry schools and pushes the burden of supporting them onto local taxpayers.

Those taxpayers, however, earn a median income that’s $1,444 below the state average.

“A lot of these people who live on the lake, they’re not wealthy. Their houses are just overvalued because they live on the lake,” said Coventry Township Fiscal Officer Joni Murgatroyd, who opposes the levy. “They’re close to retirement, and they are worried that they cannot keep up with this.”

School officials estimate that 80 percent of the township’s property wealth belong to 15 percent of its residents who live along the lakes.

Near bottom in funding

Only five Ohio school districts receive less state funding per pupil than Coventry schools, which have been in fiscal watch since 1997. The next step, fiscal emergency, invites a state takeover. That’s imminent if this third attempt at passing the upcoming bond and permanent improvement issues fail, school administrators say.

Lacking state funds has forced those administrators to reduce expenses, spending less per pupil than 459 Ohio school districts, including all Summit County schools with the exception of Manchester, which is asking its community to renew a 9.8-mill levy in May.

Last year, Coventry cut $1.6 million from its budget. Another $600,000 in cuts would ensue if the levy fails.

As incomes and state aid have shrunk, local taxpayer support has waned at the polls.

Coventry is among the 16 percent of Ohio school districts that do not have a locally generated revenue source to support ongoing maintenance and repairs, which continue to deplete a general fund that also supports instruction for students.

The permanent improvement levy on the May 7 ballot would create an ongoing revenue stream to address seasonal repairs. Previous permanent improvement issues, which would have cost the owner of a $100,000 home about $2.80 a month, have been defeated nine times since 2001.

Aside from the permanent improvement levy, the bond issue would raise $28.3 million over 34 years and entice the state to contribute an additional $11 million toward a new high school, to be constructed on the footprint of the demolished Erwine Intermediate. The district would allocate about $9.4 million to renovate the current high school and middle school. Renovations would include fixing cracks in walls that have been filled with paint for 40 years.

But those aren’t the cracks that pose the greatest threat to student safety.

A walk through the past

What the moss conceals on the Coventry Middle School roof, the water has no trouble finding.

On a rainy day, a trickling stream rolls over a blue “Coventry Comets” logo painted on the wall in a second-floor hallway. The droplets travel down, over a strip of duct tape that fastens a plastic bag to the wall, which in turn slides the water into a trash can.

“This whole area of the roof leaks,” Jon Hibian, director of facilities, said during a tour of Turkeyfoot Elementary and Erwine Intermediate, which are both slated for closure or demolition if the levy passes. “The infrastructure of the buildings is rotting away.”

Hibian, district Treasurer Aaron Butts and Superintendent Russell Chaboudy huddle below missing ceiling tiles in an Erwine classroom. With the sun shining, the bucket on the floor between them patiently waits for a raindrop.

At Turkeyfoot Elementary, Chaboudy peeks his head in a first-grade classroom.

“What are you learning about?” he asked.

“Water,” they replied.

“Us, too,” Chaboudy said, trying to remain enthusiastic in front of the kids and in spite of the irony.

It’s nearly snowing outside, and the windows are wide open. A fan placed in front of the window sucks in the cold air. Kids wear short-sleeve shirts.

The children in this room endure 87-degree heat that students across the hallway would welcome. Their classroom peaks at 50 degrees in the winter.

Erwine was constructed in 1928, Turkeyfoot in 1956. The latter operates on two of its three original boilers. Hibian estimates $30,000 in repairs would be needed to bring all three boilers into service.

Denzil Carothers, the maintenance supervisor, assures him that the remaining boilers work just fine.

“As long as it’s over 20 degrees,” Carothers said, glancing warily at the two behemoths droning on in the dark, moldy basement.

Carothers says he can’t count the buckets of tar he has spread on the roof over the years. The thick, black adhesive plugs a leak today, then the water comes in somewhere else tomorrow.

No argument about conditions

No one argues the deplorable conditions of the schools, not even those in opposition of the levy.

“We don’t wear that with a badge of honor,” Hibian said.

“I didn’t notice that before,” Butts, the treasurer, said, pointing to an entire stairwell that has shifted about 4 inches above the concrete floor.

“This is the stuff that the public doesn’t see,” Hibian said.

Inch-thick underground pipes eroded from years of acidic water. Broken gas pipes beneath the auditorium floor. A rusted out 15,000-gallon water tank costing $12,000. Drop ceiling tiles collapsing on computers overnight.

“This is the DeRolph case,” said Butts, referring to the name associated with the landmark lawsuit against the state over school funding.

The deplorable conditions at Coventry are reminiscent of 1991, when 500 school districts, led by Northern Local and other poor Appalachian schools, sued Ohio for withholding adequate state funding needed to fix deteriorated buildings.

The schools won in a series of Ohio Supreme Court judgments that demanded the General Assembly fix the problem and adhere to the Ohio Constitution, which mandates a “thorough and efficient” system to educate all children.

But the state’s response, like the piecemeal repairs at Coventry, have failed to address issues rampant in economically distressed districts.

“Today,” Chaboudy said, “22 years and four court rulings later, the Coventry Local Schools find themselves in the same situation as the Northern Local school district was back then.”

The conditions aren’t the only thing that has worsened since the DeRolph litigation.

Coventry schools received $570 less state funding per pupil last year than it received in 1998, when the Ohio Supreme Court first ruled that the state’s system of funding education was (and remains) unconstitutional. After a 15-year ruling that hinged an over-reliance on property taxes, local taxpayers in Coventry now pay $4,411 more per pupil.

Doug Livingston can be reached at 330-996-3792 or dlivingston@thebeaconjournal.com.