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Ohio districts put issue of school safety on voters’ ballots

October 9, 2018
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This April 2018 photo shows Stark County Sheriff's Department Deputy Chad Smith giving a high five to Ainsley Marcum at Middlebranch Elementary School in Canton, Ohio. As schools around the country grapple with how to fund security improvements and mental health services, some Ohio districts are hoping to raise millions of dollars by banding together to put the issue before voters this November, while others are making a ballot push independently. (The Canton Repository via AP)

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — One school district wants funding to expand mental health services. The district next door wants to hire more school resource officers. Another neighboring district wants both.

Instead of independently proposing local tax levies, they’re heading to the ballot together this November.

As schools around the country grapple with how to pay for safety measures, some Ohio districts are jointly asking voters for more funding using a new state law that essentially lets a group of districts propose a levy to generate property tax revenue specifically for school security and mental health services.

Having that specificity outlined for voters is an advantage, as is incorporating the mental health piece, said Chris Brown, superintendent of the Butler County Educational Service Center, which organized a levy proposal to benefit schools serving about 25,000 students in five district there.

“The money is earmarked only for those purposes” — like hiring counselors or armed police who work as school resource officers — whereas a traditional operating levy could be used other ways, Brown said.

Safety is a shared concern, so there’s also value in tackling it together, said Jim Frazier, the ESC superintendent in Brown County, where all five school districts have a similar levy on the ballot. Their top priority is getting an officer for every school building.

Because residents in all the participating areas vote on the levy, there’s a risk to the collaborative effort: Voters from one district could reject it but still have to pay up if enough voters elsewhere support it, or vice versa.

The idea for enabling districts to jointly pursue school-safety-specific levies came from some Stark County school superintendents this year, following a series of student suicides, said Republican Rep. Kirk Schuring, of Canton, who helped get it added to legislation.

Sixteen districts in Stark County subsequently put such a levy on the ballot in August, but voters defeated it by a wide margin.

Some skeptics questioned whether the money would really be used to increase services or to offset other costs. Others considered it unfair that the funding would be divided based on enrollment, not distributed proportionately based on how much was raised from property value in each district.

“That probably ... ended up being more complicated than what we expected,” Schuring said, noting that the intent has been to leverage the cooperative purchasing power of the ESC.

The Butler County proposal is structured differently to avoid concerns about fairness, Brown said.

The Brown County proposal would be distributed on a per-pupil basis, but Frazier said he doesn’t expect disparity to be a significant issue because the districts have similar property values.

Ohio districts also have the option to individually propose ballot measures specifically for school safety issues — an option that was added to state law in 2013, the year after three students were killed in a shooting at Chardon High School. A bill passed last spring clarified that hiring safety personnel and providing mental health services are among the ways that revenue could be used, said state Sen. Randy Gardner, R-Bowling Green, who helped get that provision passed.

In all, about a dozen of the local issues that school districts around Ohio have on the November ballot are specifically for school safety.

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