Thursday, October 26, 2000

Fate of school levy a matter of geography

Patterns emerge in past votes

By Andrea Tortora
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Voters in Avondale, Walnut Hills and the West End say yes.

        Voters in Price Hill, Cheviot and Westwood say no.

        And therein lies part of the reason no new money has been approved for Cincinnati Public Schools since 1995.

        With a vote on a 6-mill levy for city schools just 12 days away, supporters are targeting wards where every vote will count. The measure would mean $35.8 million a year for four years for the Tristate's largest urban district.

[photo] Maria Pesante of Avondale (right) and Catherine McClellan of Bellevue volunteered Thursday to put together signs at the Cincinnatians Active to Support Education headquarters at Swifton Commons.
(Steven M. Herppich photo)
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        Supporters should do well in wards in the city's core African-American neighborhoods. Opponents should do well in wards on the city's west and east sides, where families often choose private schools.

        But the district is taking nothing for granted, said Rick Williams, Cincinnati Board of Education president.

        “We desperately need this one to pass,” Mr. Williams said. “And while there are voting patterns we can see, we can also see that there are areas we usually depend on that we didn't get full support from in the last levy vote.”

        An analysis by The Cincinnati Enquirer of 20 years of voting records for the 33 wards that vote on Cincinnati school levies shows:

        • In the past two elections for new money — last March and November — the issues lost by a small percentage (5.8 votes per precinct). If just three “no” voters in each of 463 precincts had said “yes” instead, either levy would have passed.

“ ... other residents paid taxes when I was in public schools. That's what public education is all about. ”
Daphene Mosley, Roselawn
“ I know they need the money, but they have to show me they know how to use it. ”
Robert Wilkey, Westwood
        • Some voters leave the voting booth before reaching the back of the ballot book, where issues like the school levy are listed. In March, this “falloff” was 33 percent higher in pro-levy wards than in anti-levy areas.

        • Voters have approved 13 of 18 school levy requests, almost half of them extensions of existing taxes.

        • Voters have not approved a levy for new school taxes since 1995.

        There is a clear distinction when voters are asked to keep paying current taxes (the answer is yes) or to add to the pot (the answer is no). There are clear patterns as to where voter support resides.

        Yet even within levy-friendly wards there are obstacles.

        Falloff, which was as high as 16 percent in some precincts the last time city schools went to the voters, is heavy in African-American neighborhoods. And those are the neighborhoods that historically say yes to the schools.

        What's unclear is how levy supporters can overcome these factors, even in a campaign without organized opposition.

        Supporters know city residents overwhelmingly support renewal levies, or measures that continue existing school taxes.

        In fact, a renewal of 3.74 mills in 1995 received 68 percent of the vote, failing in only two wards — Cheviot and Green Township.

        Five years later in March, a renewal of 10.94 mills passed, but with less support (59 percent). It also failed in Cheviot and Green Township; but this time, these wards were joined by Lower Price Hill, Sayler Park, East Price Hill, West Price Hill and Springfield Township.

    Cincinnati Public Schools will ask voters to approve a 6-mill levy that would generate $35.8 million a year. If the levy passes, it would mean $184 a year in new taxes on a house with a market value of $100,000.
    The levy would break down this way:
    • 2 mills, or $11.94 million, to keep pace with an estimated inflation rate of 3.3 percent, as well as textbook and staffing costs.
    • 2 mills, or $11.94 million, for class-size reduction, to allow for classes in grades K-3 to be at a maximum of 17 to 19 students per teacher.
    • 1 mill, or $5.97 million, for building maintenance.
    • 1 mill, or $5.97 million, for increased spending in neighborhood schools.
        “With lots of people voting for president this time, we need to get through to everyone,” Mr. Williams said.

        Asking for more money for schools is a tough sell in a city where 80 percent of residents do not have school-age children. Of those who do, almost a third choose private and other alternative schools. West-side renters, senior citizens and families who chose private schools usually vote against new school taxes.

        In the last three attempts to get more money (1995, 1999, 2000), voters in West Price Hill never gave more than 35 percent support. Only 29 percent of them voted for the levy in March.

        There are similar patterns on the east side of town. Take Mount Washington, a neighborhood with one of the largest concentrations of families who choose private schools.

        Thirty-eight percent of its voters said yes to new school taxes earlier this year. That's down from 39.2 percent in 1999 and from 43.3 percent in 1995.

        Yes votes come most often from the city's center, including the predominantly African-American neighborhoods of the West End, Avondale, Walnut Hills and downtown. Strong support is also seen in Hyde Park, Mount Adams and Clifton.

        The three wards that make up the West End consistently tabulate between 70 percent and 85 percent in favor of school levies.

        Then there are the swing neighborhoods: Oakley, North Fairmount, College Hill and Golf Manor. Sometimes they support the levy, sometimes they don't.

        This fall, levy volunteers are taking aim at nearly every demographic.

        In areas where falloff is high, supporters are speaking at school and community functions, reminding voters to go to the end of the ballot book to vote on Issue 33, the city school levy. And sample ballots are being put in church bulletins of all denominations.

        Cincinnatians Active to Support Education (CASE) will spend at least $500,000 in their bid to get voters to the polls and to vote for the levy.

        In areas of high support, targeted mailings bear the message that the district is improving. In areas of little support, the message is how new tax revenues would be spent.

        The message of yard signs and television ads is more emotional: Support the city's children.

        The messages are designed for people like Robert Wilkey, 83, of Westwood, but he's voting no anyway. “I know they need the money, but they have to show me they know how to use it,” Mr. Wilkey said.

        Then there's Daphene Mosley, 54, of Roselawn, who will vote yes because the city and its young people must be prepared to compete in a global market, she said.

        If the levy passes, cuts made last year — equal to $180 per student or $774,000 — will immediately be restored.

        The levy would mean $184 a year in new taxes for the owner of a $100,000 home. In total, the average homeowner already pays $944.84 a year for school levies already on the books.

        All the while, hundreds of Cincinnati levy volunteers and the city's schools are registering new voters — more than 5,000 so far. They won't stop there. On Election Day, churches will provide transportation to the polls for the elderly, and volunteers will call voters to remind them to vote.

        Fred Thomas, a CASE member, said it's important to get more parents involved in schools because that often translates into yes votes on levies.

        At CASE headquarters in the Swifton Commons Mall, parents and teachers stuff envelopes and assemble yard signs.

        These grass-roots efforts are vital, said Don Spencer, CASE president, because recent voting records show that Cincinnati school levies win or lose by close margins.

        • When a levy passed in 1995, the margin of victory was just 13 votes per precinct. The margin of defeat in November 1999 and last March was 5.8 votes per precinct.

        • In March, voters rejected a 6.5-mill tax increase that would have raised $38.8 million annually.

        • At the same time, they approved a five-year, 10.9-mill levy that renewed two existing levies and will provide $65.1 million annually.

        • Voters in November defeated a $24 million, 4.5-mill levy. Most of the November levy was a tax increase.

        A yes vote on Issue 33 means $35.8 million a year for four years in new money for the aging, though academically improving district which also serves seven areas outside the city limits.

        If the levy fails, the district says it will face millions of dollars in cuts. It says teachers will be laid off, class sizes will grow, special programs will be axed.

        “We've got 42,000 children who need a quality education,” Mr. Spencer said. “Some people say the money is not necessary, but you can't do it without money.”

        Mrs. Mosley, of Roselawn, said she always votes yes for public education.

        “As a homeowner, I know it will raise my taxes, but my parents had to pay for me to go to school, and other residents paid taxes when I was in public schools,” Mrs. Mosley said. “That's what public education is about.”

        Betsy Stadnik of Hyde Park said she and her husband, J.C., will vote for Issue 33 because they see the value of special education that a friend's child is receiving through Cincinnati schools.

        But their children, Nathan, 3, and Samantha, 1 month, will probably go to private schools. “We wish there was a school in Hyde Park Nathan could go to, but we think the private schools offer a better education,” Mrs. Stadnik said.

        Levy supporters know they must convince voters the higher taxes will be worth it.

        That's what Cincinnati Superintendent Steven Adamowski hopes to accomplish by attending 13 gatherings at private homes before Election Day. The events are given by NAACP members, the Children's Defense Fund, residents and parents.

        Elaine Fink and Bob Shapiro opened their Clifton home to 120 residents on a recent Tuesday.

        With all rooms on the home's first-floor packed with people, Mr. Adamowski stood in the foyer, extolling the accomplishments of the city's schools and the work the district plans for the future.

        “I know there are people in our community that will latch on to any way not to support our schools,” Mr. Adamowski said.

        “It's a question of community character. At the end of the day we just have to depend on people to do the right thing and take responsibility for the kind of city we want to have.”
        Photos by STEVEN M. HERPPICH/The Cincinnati Enquirer


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