Still reeling after the Groveport Madison School District’s proposed operating levy failed by only 304 votes, Superintendent Scott McKenzie’s recommendation to the board of education was clear – think long and hard before bringing it back to voters in the spring.
During the Nov. 17 meeting of the Groveport Madison Board of Education, McKenzie reflected on the campaign for Issue 77, an 8.06 mill, three-year operating levy that would have generated $6.4 million a year to pay for the day-to-day expenses of the district. It would have replaced the existing three-year, 5.46 mill emergency renewal levy, which was first passed in 2007 and will expire Dec. 31, 2009.
McKenzie said Ohio voters approved at least 58.5 percent of school district issues, the highest passing rate for November school tax requests since 2002. Nearly 95 percent of renewal levies were approved, while voters passed about 38.5 percent of new ones.
"We all know that our levy did not mirror the positive statewide results," McKenzie said. "Our levy leaves us falling short 304 votes – so close, yet so far away. Our final tally provokes us to think about how we could have run the campaign differently."
The votes actually cast on Election Day were 5,016 in favor of the operating levy and 4,455 against.
"The quick math puts us ahead by 561 votes," McKenzie said. "Therefore we won the election on Nov. 4. But when the absentee votes are thrown in, they show a different story."
The absentee votes were 2,675 for the operating levy and 3,540 against – a losing margin of 865 votes.
McKenzie said the news of the levy failure hit many people hard.
"I think there was an overriding feeling of optimism during the campaign because we were asking for such a little increase," McKenzie said. "By far, our levy was the smallest increase in Franklin County."
Coupled with the fact that there was no organized opposition, not even one negative letter to the editor in the papers, McKenzie said the district is left with questions about running levies and campaigning in the 21st century with the increase of absentee voting.
Where did it go wrong?
Larry Ricchi, who co-chaired the levy committee, said absentee voters had a negative impact on school issues statewide.
He apologized for the negative impact the failure of Issue 77 will have on the school district, "In the end, a better execution, a better sell … could have made a difference on Nov. 4."
Ricchi said they tried to run a positive campaign without dwelling on "the negatives," such as what would occur if the levy failed.
"This time it was ‘Vote yes so our educational success can continue,’" he said.
He admitted he doesn’t have any real answers about why absentee voters did not favor the operating levy
"I don’t think it was because we didn’t hit the absentees (with campaign literature)," Ricchi said. "We gave them all the facts on a large, half-sheet post card. The only difference is those voters only got hit once."
He said that, because it was a presidential election year, some who voted against the levy via absentee ballot might not vote again in the next election.
Ricchi said the campaign organizers spent $10,000 to market this levy, with $4,000 remaining in the fund for future use.
Looking ahead to spring
With the issue’s failure, the district has no choice but to consider an operating levy in the spring, McKenzie said.
"If it is the board’s desire to do so, we must determine the duration and the amount and file a resolution of necessity by Feb. 13 to meet the Feb. 19 filing deadline," McKenzie said.
This time, he noted, the district needs to take a different approach to campaigning.
"I am certain this campaign in May needs to be much different than this past campaign," McKenzie said. "While we really stressed our district’s positive attributes, we did not stress the negative impact that a levy loss would bring. But this time, with (Treasurer Anthony Swartz’s) help, we will develop our next campaign around the nature and level of our state funding to stress how it is impossible for our district to continue at its current funding level."
McKenzie said the district will need to develop a list of proposed reductions at all levels such as classroom teachers, support staff, administration, extracurricular offerings, transportation, supply and equipment purchases and replacement projects for facilities.
"Literally all areas of our district will be examined and we will work to balance our budget without any increases in revenue," he said.
Some of the cost-saving measures will need to begin immediately, McKenzie said, "But most of the recommended savings will need to be implemented at the end of this year due to contractual restraints. But by then, our voters will have helped us determine the level of reductions in our educational program by once again voting in 2009."
He said if the levy fails again, "We will implement the cuts that will keep us solvent and out of a deficit situation for the 2009-10 school year. If the levy passes, we will be able to save some of these positions or programs earmarked to be cut."
McKenzie said he has asked the treasurer to determine the district’s shortfall for this year, and give a projection for next year. He also has scheduled meetings with central office staff and district administrators to begin to prioritize cuts.
Despite the levy failure, McKenzie said, it is important for the district to keep focused on the task at hand – educating the children.
"It is also my responsibility to keep our instructional staff on a positive track and to hold on to our high spirits, maintain our positive attitudes, and focus on our primary educational mission," he said. "This is not an easy task, but one we must set our minds to accomplish."
Margie Whitis, president of the Groveport Madison Local Education Association, said the levy committee ran a great campaign.
"I don’t think anyone has anything to apologize for," she said, noting levy organizers and teachers worked tirelessly to spread the word about Issue 77.
She encouraged the board to proceed with pursuing an operating levy in the spring.
"I think it would be an excellent opportunity to go back to the voters because we are so close," she said.
McKenzie said these are tough economic times for many people, so the district is going to have to make an effort to show voters the importance of passing the operating levy.
"It will be hard to convince those who do not have children in our schools that our educational programs will benefit them and our community at large," he said. "But we must reach out to our community now more than ever to ask for help as we all pull together for our kids."