Last November, the Washington Court House City School (WCHCS) District’s attempt to pass a 1 percent income tax levy for operating funds failed by just 32 votes in the general election. The WCHCS district is trying again at the Tuesday, Aug. 4 special election — this time with a 1 percent earned income tax levy.
District officials recently spoke with the Record-Herald and other community members concerning their decision to place the levy on the special election ballot, and why they believe this is a critical time for passage after not asking for an increase in operating dollars in 29 years.
“This is a 1 percent earned income tax…only on earned wages, salaries and tips for a period of seven years,” said WCHCS Superintendent Dr. Tom Bailey. “Because of the timing of the levy cycle and the position we are in as a district, the decision was made to go ahead and do a special election in August, since we only have two tries in each calendar year to get this done. We didn’t want to wait until November. As you know, this is our third attempt at an operating levy in the past three years. Last November, it was a heart-breaker. We lost by 32 votes and that was out of almost 2,500 ballots. That was very heartbreaking for us.”
After the new WCHCS Board of Education convened in January, it moved to conduct a survey to gather a full understanding of what the community would best support moving forward. After reviewing the results of the survey, as well as through many in-depth conversations with their constituents, the board decided it was in the best interest of the district’s students to go to the ballot as soon as possible, according to board member Dennis Garrison.
“We must secure local funding now to ensure that we can continue to provide educational opportunities for the kids of our community,” Garrison said.
The estimated cost of the special election for WCHCS is $15,930. According to WCHCS officials, the district paid 65 percent of that amount up front to get the levy on the ballot, and the rest is billed after the total cost of running it is finalized by the Fayette County Board of Elections.
“The reason that this is so critical for us is because that as a district we have to position ourselves and our students, our children, to be able to compete in this global market,” said Bailey. “Right now we aren’t even competing in our regional market, and that is because we are bringing in far less money than any of our neighboring districts, we’re bringing in far less money than many districts that the state says we’re similar to, and we’re spending far less. And there is a direct correlation between how much you spend in education and what you can do for the students.”
If this seven-year, 1 percent earned income tax levy passes, it will generate approximately $1.8 million annually, beginning Jan. 1, 2021.
Residents of the WCHCS district who earn wages, salaries and tips would be taxed.
Income that WILL NOT be taxed if the levy passes: retirement income, pensions, property, Social Security, unemployment, disability and survivor benefits, welfare benefits, child support, interests, dividends, and capital gains.
The average citizen in Washington C.H. would pay $1.08 a day.
“Last year the board decided they wanted to try a traditional income tax,” said Trevor Patton, WCHCS communications and marketing director. “When we did that, I received a dozen phone calls every week….our retired folks did not like that. So we listened to a lot of that feedback and we went back to earned income because that is what a big part of our voter base requested. Retirement is not taxed. It is for people who live within our district and earn current wages, salaries and tips. That’s it. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the country is overwhelmed with people on unemployment. It is not taxing those people who are on unemployment. It is only taxing people who are currently working in their jobs.”
There is also no cap on passive income, officials said.
Bailey said, “We are in a position where we are getting about 70 percent of our revenue from the State of Ohio. What has happened over the past several decades is that as our local tax dollars remain stagnant and flat, that means we have just been dwindling our expenditures and allowing the state’s percentage to rise. We are at about 70 percent, which is very high for the State of Ohio…the majority of districts are under 50 percent and a lot of them are significantly lower than 50 percent.”
WCHCS receives $2,016.03 in local revenue per pupil, according to the Ohio Department of Education Cupp Report. Comparable districts receive on average $4,096.37 per student from their communities. Miami Trace Local Schools, the neighboring school district, receives $5,892.05 per pupil. The state average local revenue is $6,117.18 per pupil.
“In other words, taxpayers in WCHCS are paying half as much as similar communities to WCH for education, and three times less than most taxpayers in Ohio,” said Trevor Patton, WCHCS communications and marketing director. “WCHCS attempts to make up for this lack of local support by aggressively applying for state and federal grants, however even with this effort, the district’s total revenue does not equal any FAC (Frontier Athletic Conference, the sports league WCHCS competes in) school, the closest being almost one million dollars away. This discrepancy continues to put our district at a severe disadvantage in educating our kids.”
Bailey added, “Regionally and in the state, we are considered a property poor district. What that means is traditionally and historically, the ways that schools were funded were by property tax. The way that you get to that is through a millage. Just over the course of time, the property values in the city school district have gone down or haven’t risen as much as other districts. So for example, if we’re looking at our neighbors (Miami Trace), we have about the same millage, so on paper when you see it, it looks like we’re getting the same amount of money because we both collect almost the exact millage. However with our millage, one mill brings in about $210,000 dollars. Whereas our neighbors bring in about $630,000 for one mill. So even though we’re about the same amount of mills, which is in the mid 20s, their millage is worth three times more than ours. People get confused because they look at millage, but millage is directly related to your property values. Our assessed property values are in the bottom 10 percent in the entire state of Ohio. Coupled with that is the fact that our district is in the bottom 20 percent of household incomes. So we have a steep hill to climb with finances.”
Simply put, district officials said they need to pass this levy for the kids. More specifically, for updated curriculum, recruitment and retention of instructional teachers, and resources required for the district’s students to succeed and compete academically.
“Everything we do in this school district is for the kids,” said Patton.
District officials said the money from this levy would be used for textbook implementation, curriculum adoption, technology resources required for testing and for academic success including virtual learning resources, recruitment and retention of instructional staff, and diverse learner resources such as speech therapy, OT, PT, audiology, as well as gifted instruction.
“Curriculum is expensive, and in order to stay current with what we have, we have to pay for it,” said Patton. “With technology resources, as we’ve learned recently during the pandemic, if we do not have online capabilities a school cannot function in today’s society, especially with what’s going on. But even once we get through COVID-19, we’ll still need these resources.”
Officials also stressed that funds from the levy, if passed, will not pay for new construction, such as a new football field, turf, or an auditorium.
When asked why the district decided to move ahead with this in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and in the aftermath of stay-at-home education this past spring due to the pandemic, officials again stressed that there have been no new local operating funds for 29 years, and that most schools in Ohio are on the ballot every three years.
“The biggest thing about this is we have not received new operating money from the taxpayers of Washington Court House since 1991,” Bailey said. “That is the last time we asked for an increase of any kind for operating expenses. Now don’t get confused, because we did have the bond issue and that helped us with new buildings, but those buildings are now going on 11 years. We’re very proud that we have gone 29 years. We are very good fiscal stewards of taxpayers dollars, and it is time.”
As for reducing expenditures, Patton said that after the levy failed last November, just under $1 million was made in district cuts. This included the reduction of approximately 30 district jobs, including administrator and central office positions, teachers, aids, coaches, cafeteria workers, maintenance and custodial workers, and all library positions.
“Thirty district jobs have went away and remain unfilled,” Patton said. “Every team lost a paid assistant coach. It was felt all the way from the top to the bottom, every single role in the district, we did lose someone and/or something was not filled.”
Officials also said there were decreases in technology spending — making it more challenging to educate students on state-required devices. Also there was an “aggressive vendor contract review” to simplify and streamline many services. Capital budget improvements and building maintenance have also been delayed.
Total Expenditure and Other Financing Uses figures from fiscal year 2019 indicate that WCHCS spent $21,548,995. Other FAC school expenditures were: Miami Trace – $29,850,362; Chillicothe – $33,099,530; Greenfield – $27,866,900; Hillsboro – $27,362,311; and Jackson – $24,033,043.
According to the ODE Cupp Report (fiscal year 2019), the administrative salaries average for WCHCS was $65,633, compared to the FAC average of $79,586 (WCHCS is last) and similar district average of $83,324. The state average is $83,223.
“Why now? Why not now?” said Garrison. “When is the best time to do this? I don’t have a crystal ball and I understand the pandemic issues and what we’re going through. I can’t tell you what Ohio is going to look like in November or at the next primary in March. But I can tell you that we do not want the State of Ohio dictating to us what this school system is going to look like two to three years from now. This is not a partisan issue. This is an issue about the community of Washington Court House, about its kids, and being able to lift them up to make them competitive in today’s world. We have to be able to give our school district the resources to compete.”
Although the special election is Tuesday, Aug. 4, early voting is open now at the Fayette County Board of Elections office. Registered voters who live in the WCHCS district can vote in-person at 135 S. Main St. today through Friday, 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., Saturday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Sunday, 1-5 p.m., Monday, 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., or on Election Day.
Reach Ryan Carter at 740-313-0352.