In the battle to sway voters, Cincinnati school levy fans win cash and volunteers in landslide

Broad support for CPS school levy

CINCINNATI -- If the Cincinnati school levy is decided by the small margin that people on both sides are predicting, it won't be because the for and against campaigns spent equal amounts of money and time making their arguments.

Not even close.

In fact, there isn't much of an against campaign at all, with so little money raised that opponents didn't have to file a campaign finance report.

Bradford Beckett, executive director of the anti-tax group COAST, said his group has produced a small number of yard signs and handbills.

The pro-levy coalition, on the other hand, collected more than $1.2 million in campaign contributions ranging from individuals giving $1 to the United Way of Greater Cincinnati Foundation donating $200,000, according to its campaign finance report.

The Cincinnati Public Schools levy has won the support of most of the city's religious community, reliable allies like unions, social service agencies and the Hamilton County Democratic Party.

But the district has stretched that coalition to include most of the heaviest hitters in the corporate community, with contributions of $50,000 or more from five giants:

• Procter & Gamble: $175,000
• The Western & Southern Life Insurance Co.: $50,000
• Cincinnati Financial Corp.: $50,000
• PNC Financial Services Group: $50,000
• Fifth Third Bank: $50,000

Cincinnati Public Schools is asking voters to approve a new levy that would raise $48 million a year for five years. That includes $15 million a year for greatly expanded preschool funding that would follow students to any private, charter or CPS preschool that is dubbed high-quality.

The other $33 million would be spent on K-12 schools, including buying more laptop and tablet computers, adding career and college counselors and continuing to add specializations to neighborhood schools.

The pro-levy coalition also won a battle of sorts when the Hamilton County Republican Party voted to remain neutral.

That leaves a loose alliance of opponents like COAST and individual politicians and political candidates.

"My position against the levy is more likely to lose than to gain votes in my own election," said Matthew Wahlert, a St. Henry High School teacher and North College Hill resident.

He's running a long-shot campaign for state representative against Catherine Ingram in the heavily Democratic 32nd district, which includes a portion of the school district.

"I have decided I am willing to risk the loss of votes because I think Cincinnati needs to ask serious questions about the levy and improving our schools," he said. "I have very real questions about the CPS Levy and its effectiveness and implementation. But, I am a lone voice asking what I believe are serious questions."

Beckett turned to a biblical metaphor to describe opponents' task.

"This is shaping out to be a David versus Goliath fight. They’ve made alliances, are well armed, well funded, and we have a sling with a few shiny, albeit well-polished, stones," he said.

Supporters going all out

Brewster Rhoads, a veteran campaign organizer involved with supporting the levy campaign, described a campaign that includes TV and radio ads and mailings -- lots of mailings. About 125 campaign workers are hand-writing post cards to individual voters.

The campaign phone bank tries to reach every voter and follow up on those calls.

Opponents are crossed off the list. Supporters are contacted again to make sure they vote. Undecided voters get an extra post card.

"It's campaign 101 for reaching people to get your message out," Rhoads said.

The campaign plans to send supporters to 129 voting locations, including nine or 10 staffed by United Way alone.

Crossroads Church has committed to working 500 three-hour shifts, and 140 members of the AMOS Project confederation of churches, synagogues and mosques have been trained to volunteer for the campaign.

Seeking bipartisan support

Rhoads said the campaign is scrupulously non-partisan, and he attributes the broad coalition to some conservative voters differentiating between national and local spending. Rhoads cited a recent successful library tax campaign in West Virginia, which has become a staunchly Republican state in presidential elections.

"There's a difference between being against taxes nationally and being opposed to taxes that are being spent in our own back yard," he said.

Cheryl Rose, senior vice president at Hawthorn PNC Family Wealth and treasurer of the main fundraising arm of the levy campaign, said corporate support stemmed from a close relationship with CPS, evidence-based plans to implement expanded preschool and improve schools and an economic imperative.

 

Cheryl Rose

 

"The reality that is that for us to maintain a strong business environment in a vibrant economy in Cincinnati, we must have a strong pool of talent," she said. "We know a strong education system and access to quality preschool is a huge driver of economic growth."

She said consolidating CPS' K-12 levy with what might have been a separate Preschool Promise levy was key to drawing support from the business community.

"Through the evidence-based research and analysis that was conducted, we not only were able to reduce the overall amount of taxes being asked for, but make this a stronger, more robust program by combining the two efforts," Rose said. "We ended up with a better solution that cost less while generating an incredible return on investment and keep this city on the rise."

United Way a key player

United Way of Greater Cincinnati, a longtime champion of early childhood education as a means out of poverty,  already stepped up to become CPS's partners in administering preschool funds to private and charter schools if the levy passes.

United Way's foundation, which does not draw money from annual fund drives, decided to support the effort with the single largest donation to the levy campaign of $200,000.

"We know from research that investing in quality preschool for our young children will earn significant returns for our community," said Lisa O'Brien, U.S. Bank Senior Vice President and chairwoman of the foundation. "This will help to reduce childhood poverty, strengthen our workforce and economy, and decrease incarceration related expenses -- ultimately bolstering economic vitality both now and in the future."

 

She said the foundation board unanimously supported the investment "to help communicate to our community the unique and historic opportunity we have to accelerate our city’s progress by investing in the education of current and future generations of children."

For Greater Cincinnati Foundation, which donated $125,000 to the campaign, the levy represents a continuation of efforts to create equal opportunities for Cincinnati's youth, according to President and CEO Ellen Katz.

Ellen Katz

"We take great pride in seeing our community come together to make high-quality preschool for all children a reality in our community," Katz said.

The levy is the district's first request for additional money since 2008.

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