How do you get voters to overwhelmingly pass a $48 million tax levy to fund Cincinnati Public Schools and expand preschool?
And can such an unusual -- not to mention successful -- campaign be duplicated to solve other big problems here, such as the heroin epidemic?
Those are the two questions political circles across Cincinnati are asking in the aftermath of the biggest levy success in modern local history last November.
“This could be a template for solving some of the bigger issues facing our community,” said Chip Gerhardt, president of Downtown-based Government Strategies Group, which advised the levy campaign. “I think it would be a shame if we don’t maintain this opportunity moving forward to work on … child poverty, infant mortality, the heroin epidemic, infrastructure needs.”
Not only did voters approve the large tax levy to fund near-universal preschool, they did so with an overwhelming force – 63 percent, the biggest winning margin since 1952.
This huge win, especially when other levies to fund city parks and a new Hamilton County jail failed in recent years, has leaders wondering if this hybrid campaign of public and private leaders could be a new formula for success.
“It’s a very progressive way to do things,” said Gary Lindgren, executive director of the Cincinnati Business Committee. “If we can get the city and the county and the state and others to take that very open-minded perspective, we’ll get more done as well.”
The leaders involved in all aspects of the joint CPS and Preschool Promise levy campaign gathered for lunch early this month to reflect on their success and discuss if it could be duplicated. The short answer: yes.
“It can’t only be done from the 30th floor; it can’t only be done from the street; it can’t just be done from the churches; it can’t just be done from the union halls; it’s got to be a collaborative effort,” Gerhardt said.
The levy had a huge range of support from very different viewpoints – top city business leaders, the city public school teacher’s union, preschool providers, church groups and nonprofits. And each was willing to compromise.
Early versions of the levy plan called for an earnings tax, which was later changed to a property tax at the urging of business leaders who worried it would dampen development.
And that wasn’t the only compromise. Supporters originally weren’t sure if Preschool Promise supporters and public school leaders would work together to combine needs, or put two separate but potentially competing levies on the ballot. Eventually they agreed to a single levy and a much smaller ask: $33 million for school needs and $15 million for preschool expansion.
“By the time all this work was done, this (levy) was cut in half,” Lindgren said. “They had a goal and they needed a levy but they were willing to take a second look at that levy.”
Also key to the levy’s success was the involvement of prominent business leaders. Top business leaders such as former Procter & Gamble CEO John Pepper, Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center president and CEO Michael Fisher, and President and CEO of North America Properties Tom Williams attended church meetings alongside community leaders like Ozie Davis to persuade people to vote for the levy.
Meanwhile volunteers from the faith-based AMOS Project registered 30,000 new voters and flushed them out to show up at the polls on Election Day. And CPS teachers also went door to door looking for support.
“We knocked on 70,000 doors, and of that there were many Republicans who people thought would not support the increase because of the cost. They were even supportive of the levy,” said Julie Sellers, president of CPS teacher union. “The levy support that we were seeing was across the board -- and I think it was due to the campaign, because there were so many different groups that were involved, and they (voters) were hearing it from many different perspectives and sides.”
That big turnout definitely helped the levy win by such a wide margin.
“I think we would have done worse in a non-presidential year but I still think we would have won,” Lindgren said. “Republicans, not surprising, were skeptical of the tax increase to begin with. But especially white female Republicans moved significantly (in polling) during the campaign.”
The compromises may have been hard fought, and everyone involved admitted there some fights along the way, but the end result – a winning levy – was well worth it.
One of the key takeaways for Stephanie Byrd, executive director of United Way’s Success By 6, was “recognizing that we were going to have to bend.”
“There’s nothing wrong with that if we can embrace the fact that there is an overarching goal that we can hang onto,” Byrd said. “When is life going to give you exactly what you want, when you want it? I think that was a hard realization that we came to. That’s the art of negotiation and compromise and getting things done.”
Greg Landsman, who led the Preschool Promise effort, agreed.
“This wasn’t easy; it was very difficult," Landsman said. "There were periods of time when it wasn’t going to happen. I do think there’s a formula here that involves having a big vision and being willing to stick with it through the good times and the hard times until it gets done.”