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Expect to see more school levies on ballots this year, and the years to come


Ten school districts across southwest Ohio will depend on voters to pass local tax levies in the May election. Many of those districts will be looking to have more success this time around after a majority of school levies in the area were rejected by voters last fall.

For districts like Loveland City Schools, this election will be even more critical because the school system could face serious consequences if the levy fails and its finances worsen.

According to information from Loveland Schools, a failed levy in May will enter the district into a fiscal distress process with the Ohio Department of Education.

The fiscal distress process has three phases, fiscal caution, fiscal watch, and fiscal emergency.

If a school district is projected to operate at a deficit, the state will require the school to submit a plan to address its budget concerns. At this stage, if voters do not pass a levy within the fiscal year, the district will be under fiscal watch, which leads to a fiscal emergency.

A fiscal emergency puts the finances of the district under the control of a commission created by the state tasked with developing a recovery plan for the school system. Once a district is in a fiscal emergency it could take years to dig itself out and change its status.

Loveland Superintendent Mike Broadwater says a fiscal emergency is a situation no school district wants to be in, but because of the state's funding model and worsening inflation, more districts could be at risk of entering this process.

"We don't receive any substantial additional funds until a levy is passed, because of House Bill 920," Broadwater told WVXU. "Sometimes when people hear districts asking for a levy, they think money has been mismanaged and that's not the case. That just means it's time for an inflationary adjustment."

House Bill 920 is what some school leaders say is causing financial strain in districts all over the state. The tax reform bill was passed in 1976 to protect homeowners in Ohio from tax increases as the value of their homes fluctuates. If the value of a home increases, HB 920 prevents the local school district from receiving additional tax revenue from a previously approved tax levy. Educators say because the bill does not account for inflation, schools are forced to either pass levies regularly or cut programs and staff every few years to keep up with rising costs.

"If you don't like levies, then you probably have to move out of the state of Ohio," Broadwater says. "It's the only state that requires school districts to go out and ask their community to pay taxes because we don't get that inflationary adjustment. It's difficult, but that's the game we have right? That's how we have to find our additional inflationary funding."

Loveland City Schools is not alone. Others like Forest Hills Local Schools and Ross Local Schools could also be facing significant academic cuts if their levies fail this spring.

In December 2021, Ross Local Schools received a precautionary fiscal emergency letter from the Ohio Department of Education, warning the district about a potential financial takeover that would result in cuts to staff and other programs if the school doesn't solve its revenue problem.

Ross Local's five-year forecast projects its deficit spending to reach nearly $6 million by 2027. To avoid the massive deficit and state takeover, Ross will need to pass its 9.5 mill, 5-year emergency levy. The school's previous levy failed in last year's November election.

During the Ross Local School District Board of Education meeting in January, board vice president Andrew Schnell stressed to the community the importance of the levy.

"If we can't get it passed in May, the cuts that are coming will fundamentally change this district. And it pains me to say that and there's stuff that's even hard to talk about cutting, but it is what it is and that's where we're at. We really need a strong push in the next couple of months to get this levy passed," Schnell said.

For these school districts, the weeks leading up to the election on May 2 will be stressful and the previous election results indicate the weeks after could be even more taxing if voters reject their levies once again.

Zack Carreon is Education reporter for WVXU, covering local school districts and higher education in the Tri-State area.