By Susan Vela
The Cincinnati Enquirer
FORT THOMAS - There were balloons, banners and emotional speeches. But the Saturday morning pep rally outside Highlands High School was about school taxes - not football.
Hundreds strong, parents had marched from points north and south before reaching the school grounds along Memorial Parkway and applauding the calls to visit the polls on Tuesday for the hotly contested levy.
For the second time in a year, they are being asked to support an 11 percent boost in property taxes for schools.
"We do have a battle and it's a battle we have to win," said Dale Mueller, Highlands' football coach and athletic director.
"It's a battle that we're going to win with caring and love and honesty. (But) we're not going to know whether we won or not until the final votes are tallied."
Levy opponents, led by Citizens for Truth and Accountability Before Taxation, say higher taxes aren't needed for the district to continue to be successful. They say the schools have been high-achieving because of the quality of students and the commitment of their parents.
The district's school board had already OK'd the tax increase when, in December, Campbell County Judge Leonard Kopowski threw out their September 2002 vote.
The school board, he said, didn't properly advertise the proposed increase, which brought in $1.5 million for the current school year.
If the tax is approved, revenues will mainly go toward teacher salaries.
Fort Thomas teachers with five years' experience now receive $32,472. The pay level is fourth-lowest of 19 school districts in Boone, Campbell, Kenton, Gallatin, Grant and Pendleton counties.
Former Bengal Cris Collinsworth, who has four children in the district, pleaded with the Saturday morning crowd to forget the past months' battles and return to the polls.
He implored members of the audience to take a neighbor, relative or friend.
"What we have done for the past six months has been great practice," he said. But "the game is on Tuesday. This is not a victory celebration. This is a wake-up call for the game that's going to be played on Tuesday."
The tax proposal inspired Highlands senior Kevin Duke to speak, too.
In a district known for its academic achievement, he is National Honor Society president and captain of the debate team.
He said he dreams of sitting in Highlands' auditorium and watching his children receive their diplomas.
"Come Tuesday, we will say once again - not with signs, lapel pins, or fliers, but with the voice of democracy - that education is No. 1 in importance to Fort Thomas. Come Tuesday, we vote," he said.
Steve Pendery, Campbell County judge-executive and congressional candidate, reminded the crowd that Tuesday's turnout at the polls is more important than their showing at the rally.
"The strength of our community is our school system. Fort Thomas is our home and right now our traditions and our way of life (are) threatened," he said.
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