A SCHOOL DISTRICT’S FIGHT FOR FUNDING

May 3, 2018

Nearing the brink of state intervention, Field Local Schools needs
something from its community it hasn’t gotten in 27 years: new funding.

Words by Ben Orner | Photos by Sophia Adornetto

 

The last time voters in the Field Local School District passed a tax levy for new funding, Erin Roberts was a student at Suffield Elementary. That was 1991. And even then, funding was an issue in the school district that serves the southern part of Kent and sits less than a mile from Kent State.

“I remember being a kid and this happening,” Roberts says, thinking back to the same arguments community members were having then.

Twenty-seven years later, Roberts is now a mother of two kindergartners who attend the financially distressed Field school district. In that time, she has gone from student to concerned citizen.

She and her sister-in-law, Brandi Roberts, lead the Field Levy Committee, a group of district parents and residents promoting the district’s tax levy that will be on the ballot May 8.

“Instead of joining the PTA,” Brandi, who also has children in the district, says, “it was joining this.”

If the levy passes, it will give Field Local Schools new operational funding for the first time in more than a quarter-century, and it will end an exhausting streak of a dozen consecutive failures in elections dating back to 2011.

A tax levy is a property tax increase proposed by a public school district. Ohio is a referendum state, meaning school boards have to put tax levy proposals on election ballots. Passing the levy is then solely up to voters in the district, unlike in states such as neighboring Pennsylvania, where school boards can just raise property taxes themselves.

The Field school district handles the logistics, such as how much money the levy will raise and what that money will go to. The levy committee handles public outreach.

The levy on the ballot in May would raise about $4 million, which comes out to about a $380 increase in property taxes for a home valued at $100,000. Most of the funds would go to day-to-day operations costs to keep the district financially stable through the 2021-22 school year.

“The levy isn’t going to bring anything back, but it’s going to continue what we have,” Brandi says. “We wouldn’t have to cut classes and courses and teachers.”

A small part of the levy would go toward replacing the high school parking lot.

“If you’ve not driven our main campus, you should,” Superintendent Dave Heflinger says of the continually deteriorating pavement. “Just be careful. It’s a very rough parking lot.”

The district as a whole is also in rough shape.

Few people know this more than district treasurer Todd Carpenter. According to his figures, the district spends about $9,000 per student, which is the lowest in Portage County and the 42nd lowest among Ohio’s more than 600 school districts. In the past seven years, the district has lost 37 percent of the new staff it has hired, mentored or trained.

“New teachers come in, we train them, we get them their resume builder and they move on to another school,” Erin says. “And that’s a hard turnover for our school.”

The teachers union even agreed to not take a pay increase this year so the district could remain fiscally solvent.

“The teachers have very often — since we’ve started this levy process — either taken a salary freeze or a step freeze,” Erin says. “They’ve taken ones for the team quite often, and they’re not getting rewarded for that.”

A school district’s costs naturally rise as time goes on. Inflation drives costs up, teacher salaries and benefits increase, and the tax base shrinks because families leave the district. Plus, in Ohio, the state legislature often reduces public school funding.

“The district is a service-oriented business,” Carpenter says. “It’s not really a spending issue. It’s a funding issue.”

Heflinger puts it in relatable terms.

“If people were trying to live on the same budget at home on an income that they made 27 years ago, I think they would have found that their expenses would have gone up dramatically,” he says.

The lack of funding since 1991 has forced the district to make significant cuts. To name a few, there is no bussing for high schoolers, students have to pay to play sports and elementary electives were once cut in half.

“There’s no more money to find,” Heflinger says bluntly. “There’s no more big-time savings.”

“There’s nothing left except to go back to the voters,” he says.

Those cuts cause a negative feedback loop. As the district loses programs, parents move their kids to other districts through open enrollment. That diminishes Field’s tax base and thus its ability to raise money.

“Every time you cut, you’re taking things away from the students,” Heflinger says. “Whatever it is we’re cutting, it’s a service we’re providing somehow for kids.”

The cuts also have a negative effect on public perception — for the levy at least. As the district tries to stay afloat by throwing things overboard, community members think the ship will always stay upright.

“We keep getting by by the skin of our teeth, which is really fabulous,” Erin says, “but to the voter it looks like they had more money than what they said.”

 

The school district of 1,900 students has not had any new operational funding in 27 years, but it is not because of lack of trying.

Some version of the current levy proposal has been on the ballot in almost every election since August 2011. Twelve elections, 12 failures.

Erin and Brandi have led the levy committee for the past three or four years, but they joined it during that August 2011 election, when the levy failed by more than 2,000 votes. That ended up being its worst defeat, however, as voters warmed up to the levy over time. In November 2013, it failed by just 80 votes. But then the trend reversed, and by last November, voters denied it by 570 votes.

“You almost feel like there’s no way it’s going to pass,” Brandi sighs, “but then you just sit and hope, ‘Maybe.’”

That “maybe” is what keeps them going.

Each levy cycle, the Robertses will add a new strategy to close the voting gap. In levies past, they’ve held community meetings, made T-shirts and mailed flyers to every registered voter in the district.

“Before … we made this flyer, and we mass-mailed it to everybody who was a registered voter in our community,” Erin says.

But with this levy, social media may be the key. The committee has an active Facebook page, website and video blog. The group regularly posts videos and other media to virtually reach into the community and pull out supporters.

The online outreach has seen some early success. A video Erin posted in January promoting May’s levy gathered 1,500 views in just a month. “I feel like this conversation is changing,” says Erin, a stay-at-home mom whose efforts during levy season essentially turn into a full-time job.

She tells a story in which she went to a Suffield Lions Club meeting to promote the levy, and an elderly woman came up to her and complimented her on the committee’s Facebook videos.

“We were putting out flyers and stuff on Facebook or a post, and we’d get maybe 300 views,” Erin says, “and now we’ve done videos and we’ll get 3,000 views.”

But that online presence is not without its challenges. “Social media has been a great avenue for us to get our information out, but it’s also a great avenue for people to spread misinformation,” Erin says.

Whenever the levy committee posts something, people will comment and argue with false information. “We do our best to be on there correcting it,” Erin adds.

Misinformation is a major hurdle in the committee’s efforts.

“People don’t understand how their local government works, how their local levies work,” Erin says. “People don’t understand that one ‘mill’ is not $1 million.”

Another strategy the Robertses have committed to is heavily reaching out to parents, who they think include a lot of “yes” voters who just don’t show up at the polls.

“We have a lot of parents in our community that are not registered to vote or just don’t go bother to vote on that day, and that’s what kills us,” Erin says. “Here’s a group of people that have every reason to vote for the levy.”

If the levy does not pass this time around, the district moves closer to intervention by the state. Heflinger says if the voters don’t pass a levy by next year’s primary election, Ohio will likely put Field in “fiscal emergency.” The state auditor’s office comes in and helps the district get back above water by loaning it money and cutting things it sees as excessive.

In fiscal emergency, Heflinger worries, many important things the district provides could be fair game for the state to slash.

“There is nothing good that will come from kids and families that would come from reducing the number of teachers or reducing extracurriculars or eliminating electives,” he says. “We’re trying to hang on to those opportunities as long as we can.”

“The state tells us what we’re doing, not our local school system and our local board,” she says. “So that terrifies me.”

But even with deep cuts to district offerings, the state would still need Field to pass a levy in order to pay of the state’s loans.

“Even if the state comes in, you pass a levy,” Heflinger says. “That’s what happens eventually. You just pass a bigger levy, because you have to pay all the money back the state’s given you.”

Erin and Brandi have deep roots in the district. Both their sets of parents attended Field High School. Erin’s grandparents attended the district, and the football stadium is named after her grandfather. But if Field’s dire financial situation continues, the Roberts family may not see a third generation of Field High School graduates, forcing Erin to make a decision of whether to keep her kids in the district.

“I’ll have to have that conversation,” Erin says frankly.

Through the doubts, the failures and the tough conversations, Brandi and Erin keep pushing.

“You can’t give up,” Brandi says as she thinks back on the cycle of disappointment from a dozen straight levy failures. “As many times as you want to give up, then you are giving up on your own kids and your community.”

“The school is one of the pillars of our community,” Erin says, “and if that goes downhill, so does the community.”

From superintendent Heflinger, a plea to the voters, who ultimately hold the power of whether the district sinks or swims: “We’re trying to provide our kids with the best opportunity for their future,” he says, urgency rolling of his tongue.

“Someone did it for us when we were in school. Somebody provided for us. That’s how we are all where we are today. The kids today need those same opportunities.”