Southwest schools are asking voters for $78 million to build 4 schools and renovate Harrison High

Superintendent thinks this one will pass
Southwest schools are asking voters for $78 million to build 4 schools and renovate Harrison High
Posted at 7:00 AM, May 18, 2017
and last updated 2017-05-18 07:00:38-04

HARRISON, Ohio -- A landscape-altering proposal by Southwest Local Schools would build four new schools and renovate Harrison High School, running taxpayers roughly $78 million in a 7.09-mill bond issue if passed in November.

And despite a levy history that doesn't exactly assure success, school and community leaders, armed with what they believe is a good argument and an inclusive process, think it's going to happen.

"The community engagement piece has been much more robust this time around," said Superintendent John Hamstra. The community advisory team has involved more than 1,000 people so far and made its recommendation to the Southwest Board of Education on April 20 after whittling 17 master plans down to one.

Hamstra had been on the job only a few months when the district last went to voters in August 2016. That 6.99-mill issue went down, with 57 percent opposing. This time, homeowners pay an extra $248 per year for each $100,000 in assessed value.

Hamstra said the problem may have been that the process was too insular, involving only an inner circle and the board.

"And then the community looks at it in the voting booth and goes, 'No, that's not the plan,' " he said.

Something like that may have happened in November 2015, when a 7.2-mill request went down as well. Southwest's last successful request of any kind was an income tax levy in November 2006, according to the Hamilton County Board of Elections. The district is 3-3 in voter requests since May 1996, with its last bond issue of 3.94 mills passing in November 1998.

Since 1993, schools in Hamilton County asking for more than 6 mills of additional money are successful about 47 percent of the time, according to the Board of Elections. One mill is the equivalent of one dollar for every $1,000 of a property's taxable valuation.

The current plan would build a junior high and three elementary schools, converting Whitewater Valley Elementary into a multipurpose building for administrative and other uses. It would also extensively renovate Harrison High.

Hamstra said the district has built three schools since consolidation in 1954.

Asked if the scope of the project gives her pause, Jennifer Leurck, a mother of three in the district who was at the forefront of the community advisory team, didn't hesitate.

"Yes," she said. "But if you've been out to Harrison and you've seen just how much we've grown, it's more than any other district.

"I come from a baseball family, so I'm often thinking of 'If you build it, they will come.' Well, they're coming and we still haven't built it. The need is worth it as far as we have to provide space for these children that are entering our district, left and right."

District releases say that a polling firm used by the district's architectural firm found that 70 percent of registered voters see the need for "new, expanded and upgraded" schools. The releases also say that Crosby Elementary and Harrison Junior High are hardest hit by the space crunch, owing to hundreds of new homes and lots available in their vicinity.

Crosby's growth rate over the last two years averages 12 percent; the junior high's rate averages about 4.5 percent in the same time period. The district says that some classrooms at each site contain as many as 35 students; the average class size in Ohio is about 25 students.

Overall enrollment over the last four years is up an average of 2.33 percent, according to district figures. The district has deployed modular classrooms and without the issue's passage faces millions of dollars in maintenance on existing buildings, according to Hamstra.

"Any amount of increase to your tax dollars, nobody's really in favor of," said John Matheny, another prominent advisory team member who has two children in the district and another joining in a few years. "Once you discuss what you're going to get from it, people are going to understand that it's definitely worth it. I think it's less of a sell. I believe if we educate and explain the need, it's going to turn the minds of the opposition."

State figures and calculations and other considerations will cement the final form and amounts of the request to voters at the board's June meeting.

Hamstra maintains that 68 square miles of school district creates plenty of land availability, and that combined with Southwest schools' reputation and the community's proximity to Interstate 74 make for an attractive place to call home.

"I believe we have a great plan going forward," Hamstra said. "Yes, there's a cost involved, for sure. I make no bones about it: This investment costs money. Our kids' future costs."