WEST CHESTER, Ohio -- Barely two weeks since students in the Lakota Local School District headed back to class, district volunteers are heading back into the community for the fourth time since 2010 to ask residents to vote on a levy this November to help fund the second-largest school district in the Tri-State.
Hundreds dropped by Lakota West High School Saturday to pass out and pick up signs and T-shirts in support of the 5.5 mill combination levy, which would increase district funding by $13.8 million annually, if passed.
The supporters, wearing “We are Lakota” T-shirts, lined the high school football field with signs and formed a circle as an aerial photographer flew by, signaling the start of a heavily anticipated campaign.
Lakota, the eighth-largest school district in the state, hasn’t won voter approval of a new school tax since 2005, and it lost three levies at the ballot in 2010 and 2011.
Since voters struck down the first levy in 2010, the district says it has reduced its annual spending by $20.8 million. It cut 300 teachers from its staff, eliminated a school period for high school freshman and sophomores, and it reduced daily music, art and physical education classes to one day per week.
It also increased athletic and band participation fees to $550 for each student per sport, eliminated bussing at the high school level and for all students living within a two-mile radius of their school.
The fall levy combines 2.0 mills, or $5 million, for permanent improvements and 3.5 mills, or $8.5 million, for operations. If passed, it will cost each taxpayer an additional $192 annually per $100,000 value of their home.
“The cuts are really starting to affect our kids, not just in participation but also in their education. This levy kind of gets us back on solid ground with being competitive—not by bringing everything back, but by looking forward,” said Libby Willms, the chair of the Lakota levy campaign.
Willms said the proposed permanent improvements will include safety and security measures, technology enhancements, and facility upkeep and maintenance on the district’s 25 school buildings and grounds.
The district plans to add modifications to buildings and systems to protect those inside, and intends to triple the number of police and deputies in the schools.
Operational changes would include a reduction to athletic and band participation fees at both the high school and junior high level. Students in fourth through sixth grades would be offered one additional day of art, music or physical education, and students in ninth grade would have another period added to their class schedule.
Willms said the district would also offer bussing to an additional 2,200 students in grades two through six who live farther than one mile from the school.
The additional bussing could affect Kim Reber and her family. She’s a mother of three daughters and is a levy supporter. Reber lives within two miles of the school district and has to transport her children to school each day.
She said the success of the levy is critical for convenience reasons and for the success of her children’s education.
“A lot of things that kids need to develop and to grow are being taken away gradually and kind of falling apart. Lakota is known for being excellent and without funding, they cannot maintain that excellence,” Reber said.
She said the stakes are so high for her family, she’s even considered moving if the levy doesn’t pass.
“When I came here, I came here because of the schools. I’m not seeing that the schools can maintain their excellence given the lack of support from the residents,” said Reber.
Some residents say they will never support a Lakota school tax hike because they don't think enough money is going directly to the students.
Graeme George, an 80-year-old Liberty Township resident, is a staunch opponent of school tax levies.
“We can’t influence the cost and benefits and make improvements because the unions are too much in control. We can’t work with the teachers and the school board and the public because the unions come in,” he said.
George is a member of the anti-levy group, No Lakota, which says it has plans to actively campaign for the levy’s failure once more.
Bob Hutsenpillar, a Lakota district resident and No Lakota member, said he will also vote against the levy because of “wasteful spending” towards teacher salaries.
“What they are asking for to give to students is a very small percentage of the levy,” Hutsenpillar said.
But Willms said taxpayer contributions to teaching salaries are essential for the successful operation of any school.
“We have 900-plus teachers. You have to understand what schools do. They have teachers who teach kids. It’s a service industry, so of course a bulk of your budget would have to go towards your employee,” she said.
With just about nine weeks until Election Day and an unsuccessful track record, levy supporters believe the stakes are at an all-time high.
"Lakota is in trouble," said Willms. "If this levy fails,
we're looking at a new Lakota. We're looking at second-rate schools."
Their strategy this time -- a bigger push to get people out to the polls.
Early voting begins on Oct. 1 and election day is Nov. 5.