Thursday, February 6, 2003

Lockland to try levy again in Aug.

But schools eye options after latest defeat

By Maggie Downs and Dan Klepal
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[photo] Students leave the Lockland School Complex Wednesday. To keep schools open, board members will try again to get a levy approved.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
| ZOOM |
LOCKLAND - The Lockland City School Board isn't giving up the fight to keep its schools open.

School board members announced Wednesday that they will ask voters to approve a 24.1-mill levy in August that would raise about $2.5 million a year and keep the school's books in the black for at least five years. If the levy fails in August, school officials say they will try again in November. An identical tax was shot down in Tuesday's special election with a 71-percent "no" vote - a total of 739 votes to 307 votes in favor of the levy. It would cost the owner of a $100,000 house $532 a year.

Superintendent Phil Fox will begin talking immediately to school districts of Cincinnati, Princeton, Reading and Wyoming to gauge interest in possibly absorbing Lockland schools if the levy fails. Lockland will run out of money in July 2004 if voters do not agree to a new tax.

Fox said the board decided against placing the levy on the May ballot because it needs time to mount an effective campaign strategy.

"The board feels we need some time to counter the negative propaganda put out by the opposition," Fox said.

Tuesday's levy failure was on everyone's mind in Lockland schools Wednesday.

Fourth-grade teacher Jennifer Blank said students approached her with a lot of questions.

Lockland City School Board officials said Wednesday that they will file voter fraud charges against at least 14 people who do not live in the school district but voted in Tuesday's special election, where a 24.1-mill school levy was defeated.

Superintendent Phil Fox said "between 14 and 15" former residents of the school district voted. "Those are just the names that jumped out at us," said Fox. "There could be more."

Voter fraud is a fourth-degree felony.

Why didn't the levy pass?

When will the school close?

What's going to happen to us?

"I had to tell them the truth," said the 23-year-old Forest Park resident. "We don't know what's going to happen - but we hope for the best."

Tuesday's setback is the first levy to fail for Hamilton County's smallest public school district, made up of 650 students in two schools.

"Ideally, I'd like to see the levy put back on the ballot and pass," said fourth-grade teacher Martha Rodgers, 25, of Springdale. "But I don't think that's going to happen."

The possibility of a merger with one of the larger school districts is disappointing news for the school district, which has been a vital part of the Arlington Heights and Lockland communities since 1851.

"I have a lot of people who say to me that the schools are the community here," said Fox, who has been with the system for 29 years.

Lockland teachers are disturbed by the prospect of a merger.

"I wish people could see what this district has to offer and what other districts don't," said Blank, who previously taught in the Cincinnati Public Schools. "There's a reason why I came here."

Because it's such a small district, Lockland can offer more individualized attention to students, she said. Materials are current and the technology is up-to-date. Free breakfasts and lunches are provided to each student every day. And most of these things are provided through state grants - grants that would no longer be available if Lockland were to become part of another system.

"I'm sure I could find a job elsewhere if something happened," said fourth-grade teacher Andrew Price, 31, of Pleasant Ridge. "My main concern is for the students. A lot of these kids would really miss out if we merged."

Times haven't been kind to the district. Lockland once had a large industrial tax base, but that plummeted during the 1990s and never recovered. For example, at one time the district was receiving as much as $4 million in taxes a year from GE Aircraft Engines. That amount has dwindled to $750,000, Fox said.

While many people in the community once attended Lockland schools, there is a growing amount of new blood in the area. That makes a difference in loyalty at the polls.

"People are coming in, and they aren't thinking about the kids," Rodgers said. "They're focusing on how this levy affects their pockets."

Fox believes one contributing factor to the levy failure was the organized opposition among area businesses, which he said included some inaccurate information. Another cause could be the poor economy.

"I think a lot of people simply couldn't afford it," he said.

And some just believe that residents don't support the system as they did in the past.

"Schools are the pinnacle of a community," Rodgers said. "So what does this say about our community?"

The school board decided to close school today and Friday because many students and faculty members have been ill. They hope to reopen Monday.

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