WESTERVILLE, Ohio – Parents and taxpayers in the Westerville City School District want to force school spending reform in a very interesting way.
Their plan is to take away approximately $16 million from the district’s budget by repealing a portion of their school millage through a public referendum on the November ballot.
The goal is to force school officials to address a history of questionable spending practices that have resulted in annual tax increases.
The group leading the charge — Taxpayers for Westerville Schools — also wants the district to consider logical cost-saving measures that have been repeatedly suggested by local residents, but largely ignored by the school board.;Folks from our group have actually been to meetings to provide great ideas for fiscal responsibility since 2009,” Jim Burgess, spokesperson for Taxpayers for Westerville Schools, told EAGnews.org. “This wasn’t a reactionary effort. It’s been ongoing for three years now trying to get things under control.”
Last November, a group of taxpayers and district parents worked to defeat a proposed school levy increase and were overwhelmingly successful. Citizens rejected the measure 61-39 percent with a very high voter turnout, Burgess said.
Within two weeks (of the November 2011 defeat) the board of education had decided to put another levy on the ballot for March,” he said.
That five-year “emergency levy” passed, Burgess said, and “a month later we decided to… work for the petition effort to put the issue on the ballot to remove that tax increase.”
State law doesn’t allow residents to erase an “emergency” levy, so the group is actually working to remove an earlier tax increase. But the effect is the same.
The intent is to neutralize what happened in March,” Burgess said. “We actually kicked off… (the petition effort) the last Wednesday in April.”
By August 7, when Taxpayers for Westerville Schools turned in their petition, the group had collected 5,136 signatures in support of removing 6.71 mills of the district’s continuing school tax levy, which equates to roughly $16 million in district revenue.
They only needed 3,585 signatures to put the question on the ballot.
Burgess believes the overwhelming response is a clear indication the district’s voters are prepared to send a strong message to the school board: It’s time to change the way the district does business and for school employees to begin contributing their fair share.
A lot of folks were so happy we’re doing it,” he said. “We had a lot of support. Getting 30 to 40 percent more signatures than we needed in a three-month window is just amazing.”
Burgess said volunteers collecting petitions “really didn’t have to explain” their reasoning to citizens they approached.
Most local residents are well aware of the spending problems that have plagued the district for years.
In 2009, voters approved a $20 million school levy, and by 2011 school officials had spent the district into a $23 million deficit. The average Westerville teacher salary is about 150 percent of what the average citizen makes, and educators receive substantial raises on a regular basis.
“From our research, you can see where from 2004 through 2011 … about 200 teachers received 43 to 53 percent pay increases over that period,” Burgess said. “On the low end, it was about 13 percent for teachers who were already making around $75,000. The average increase for an area resident was about 4 percent. We got the payroll, and a gym teacher who retired this year made $103,000 … plus 20 percent in benefits and retirement.
“We can see things are really out of line with the rest of the community.”
Over the last several years, local residents attended board meetings and raised concerns about car allowances awarded to administrators, which range from $50 to $400 per month.
They’ve also pointed to health insurance costs that are draining the district’s coffers.
Up until this year, taxpayers paid 100 percent of health insurance costs for administrators, until public pressure forced them to pitch in about 11 percent, matching the amount teachers pay toward their coverage.
School leaders last year mistakenly “overpaid $1 million on health care and can’t get the money back” because of the way the plan works, Burgess said.
“We’ve proposed ideas to save over $4 million in health care costs by looking at the national average and changing how the plan works,” Burgess said.
The proposal fell on deaf ears.
Administrator pensions are another problem.
The anti-tax group estimates the district would save as much as $700,000 per year if school administrators contribute “their fair share” towards retirement. Currently, teachers contribute about 11 percent and the school district kicks in about 14 percent. Administrators enjoy the privilege of the district paying both portions.
“We’re just asking them to pay their 10 to 11 percent portion, the same as the teachers pay,” Burgess said. “They are not paying what we consider their fair share.”
Taxpayers have also highlighted waste in the teachers contract, specifically a provision that requires Westerville schools to supplement the salary of school employees who work full-time as union officials.
“We’ve been complaining about it,” Burgess said. “We’re paying for an employee to do union business, but they have zero time in front of students.”
Nearly all of the community’s cost-saving suggestions have been ignored by the school board as district officials continue to push for more tax dollars, Burgess said.
“If it was one thing, you say ‘Oh, it’s the nature of the beast,’ but there are a lot of different things” that are unnecessarily straining the school budget, Burgess said. “They wanted another $20 million in 2011 and pretty much said it was only going to last another two years.
“We think there are plenty of options” to cut costs, he said. “The idea is we can put our children first, we can take care of the taxpayers and we can take care of the employees really well, but just not so exorbitantly that it puts a burden on the rest of the community.”
Eight local residents make up Taxpayers for Westerville Schools’ leadership team, and about 70 district taxpayers volunteered their time and money to collect the signatures necessary to put the issue on the November ballot.
But not everyone is on board with the effort. A local pro-tax group and the district’s teachers union have attempted to smear the anti-tax campaign.
“We were accused of spending $15,000 for a robo call, which to them meant we had to have outside money coming in,” Burgess said. “That was completely false, we spent a total of under $3,500 and it was completely paid for by Westerville City School District residents.
“There was a lot of negative statements and a lot of misinformation stated. … (T)hey tried to say we were outside influencers,” Burgess said. “I think they were just hoping we would kind of flail and not meet our goals.”
Despite the detractors, Burgess said many in the community supported the petition effort and vowed to vote for the measure in the coming elections. Some suggested that the group take it a step further.
“We had a lot of people come up and sign this petition and said we also have to replace the school board members,” Burgess said. “We’ll have the opportunity to work for that next year.”
In the meantime, Taxpayers for Westerville Schools is busy blazing a new trail for public school reform that few others, if any, have attempted. Yesterday, the Franklin County Board of Elections certified the proposed levy reduction for the Nov. 6 ballot.
“We’ve had been talking to board members over the last few years. We constantly have people at the board meetings making comments and trying to change things,” Burgess said. “In this instance we’re not going to them, we’re going to the community.
“The public will decide.”
Headline image: Paul Vernon/ThisWeek