Cleveland Seeking Approval from Voters for School Tax Hike

This fall, residents of Cleveland, Ohio, will be asked to vote on a 50% increase in school tax rates to help fund a total overhaul of the city’s public school system. Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson hopes that the measure will raise nearly $15 million — enough to turn around schools that have been slipping in rankings and help close the ever-increasing budget deficit.

The levy, which will add an average of $294 to residents’ tax bills, will serve as the first operating budget increase received by the school system since 1996. Overall, it will add an additional $77 million to the school’s $670 million operating budget; the total district budget is currently set at $1.1 billion.

Of the money raised, $5.5 million will go towards funding district-affiliated charter schools, which marks the first time in the state that money raised via a tax increase will fund charter schools directly.

Unless a new vote is held to extend it, the levy will expire after four years.

Jackson and school district Chief Executive Officer Eric Gordon said that the size of the 15-mill tax request may startle voters but that the money raised will allow the district to escape the crisis mode of budgeting that it has operated under for the last several years.

No Northeast Ohio district has passed a new tax with this much millage since the Ohio School Boards Association began tracking vote results in 2003. The Cleveland district’s last tax, passed in 1996, was for 13.5 mills.

Although there was anticipation that the district would ask for a tax increase to close the system funding gap, the amount of the levy took many by surprise. The Cleveland City Councilman Mike Polensek joked that district officials might consider distributing adult diapers prior to announcing the final numbers to homeowners, to prevent unpleasant consequences when the residents “crap their pants.”

Cleveland, with its 41,000 students, has a weak tax base compared with most suburbs, giving it less bang per mill. Some Cuyahoga County districts have three, four or even close to five times as much taxable property value per pupil as Cleveland, which ranks only ahead of East Cleveland and Maple Heights in the county.

To raise a similar amount per-student, Beachwood would need a 3.1-mill tax or Mayfield a 4.3-mill tax, for example.

The levy would give the district the financial room to take advantage of the dispensations granted by the state legislature to take steps they deem necessary to improve student outcomes and raise graduation rates. District officials are considering a range of measures from closing failing schools to extending the length of the school day to broadening investment in technology.

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