UA Schools is asking UA residents to approve a controversial operating levy.
BY EZRA LIU ’24
In November of 2019, almost a month before the first Covid-19 case, the Upper Arlington Board of Education announced the need for a new operating levy in the following year. It was the next in a series of levies, commonly held once every three years in order to keep the school district up and running. A year later, however, the request for a new levy was delayed by a year—then was delayed again in 2021. Now, three years later, the levy has finally been set into motion. On Nov. 8, Upper Arlington residents will be asked to vote on the upcoming levy, known as Issue 5.
In Ohio, schools receive funding primarily from three main sources. Two, the federal government and state government, are generated by national and state taxes and are usually distributed depending on district needs. Because Upper Arlington is a wealthy area, it receives very little in state funding; it relies more on the third source: local funding. Local funding is collected by local governments in the form of levies, tax issues usually funded by property tax. Each time a levy is passed, the local government is allowed to continue to collect that amount of money each year to fund the school’s operating budget. The amount of the levy, however, is not subject to change, meaning that as the economy and property valuation changes, the school does not receive any more or less money. This means the school needs to continually ask for new levies, usually once every three years.
Levies are measured in mills, where one mill is equivalent to approximately one-tenth of a cent. The Upper Arlington levy is a 6.9 mill levy, which translates to an additional 241.50 dollars for 100,000 dollars of home value (home value is determined by the county auditor.) The vast majority of the money raised by levy funds go to teacher and administration salaries, which comprise around 85% of the budget. The other 15% percent go to smaller expenditures, such as the school electrical or gas bill. This year’s levy will also include money to accommodate student body growth and to begin to rebuild the school’s emergency funds.
Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Board of Education was able to delay the operating levy by two years by stretching the funds they had under the 2017 levy, as well as by implementing a hiring freeze and leaning heavily on their “Rainy Day Fund”, an emergency fund meant to be used in times of hardship for the school district. This, combined with inflation, means the 2022 levy has become even more important to ensure that the school can continue to function normally.
“Without additional revenues, we’re going to have to cut future expenditures in the first year after a levy wouldn’t pass by about $11 million, which would mean laying off about 100 people and most of those layoffs would be teachers,” Dr. Paul Imhoff, the superintendent of UA Schools said. “We would be looking at the elimination of programs, we would not be able to offer as many classes, we will be looking at much, much larger class sizes. We would have incredibly high fees. So we would have to restructure our entire district.”
The last time a school levy failed in Upper Arlington was ten years ago, in 2012. The failure resulted in the loss of several programs, positions at the high school and increased athletic fees, among other things. Dr. Imhoff stressed that if the levy was to fail this year, the impact would be much larger, and would be felt the most by students. “If the levy fails, the teachers and administration aren’t bearing the brunt—the students are. If we lay off 100 teachers, they’re going to be hired by the district next door within 24 hours. The pain will be felt not by our staff, but by [our] students.”
While the circumstances surrounding the levy are unique, it’s important to remember that the funding requested under Issue 5 is strictly to allow the school to continue operating at current levels. “We aren’t asking for additional funds to add x, y and z, we’re asking for additional funds to maintain what we have now,” said Andrew Geistfeld, the Chief Financial Officer and Treasurer for Upper Arlington Schools. “If [the community] chooses not to support the levy, then that tells us that they aren’t happy with the various things the district offers.”
Geistfeld also stressed the importance of understanding why the district needs to continually return to ask for new levies. “It’s not the fact that we don’t know how to budget money, it’s the fact that we’re playing within the field of what the state legislatures give us… we’re dependent greatly on our residents, always have been, and because of the way the tax law works, we’ll be coming back every three years to continue to offer our students the best educational programs there are.”
Regardless of how voters cast on election day, it’s important to be informed about the issue the community is deliberating. Additional information about the levy can be found on uaschools.org under Issue 5, which includes a list of frequently asked questions and resources to look up the value of your home. You can also reach out to the superintendent’s office with questions. Dr. Imhoff reiterated the importance of being well informed. “Do not assume you understand how taxation and school funding works. Very few people understand how that works, so what I would encourage people to do is to do their homework and do their research and learn how our system works and dig into all the information and then make a decision about how they’re going to vote,” he said. Prospective voters can register online or in person at several locations. Those who are unable to vote can also contribute by helping to educate those who can, or by advocating for their beliefs.
In approximately one month, the Upper Arlington community will convene to make one of the most important choices facing UA Schools in decades. Whether you’re in support of or against Issue 5, it’s valuable to contribute to the decision making process, as the decision will affect the futures of not only the current UA students but also students for years to come. Voting will be held on Nov. 8, and all voters are invited and encouraged to participate.