The grassroots Educate UA campaign that told voters it was OK to say ‘no’ to Issue 51 resonated with residents Nov. 6 as they rejected the Upper Arlington City Schools’ 5.8-mill levy request.
With all 38 precincts reporting, the unofficial tally, according to the Franklin County Board of Elections, was 9,578 votes in favor, or 45.14 percent, and 11,641 votes, or 54.86 percent, against the levy.
Hopeful expressions in the school district’s board room quickly turned glum as volunteers recorded precinct numbers Tuesday night.
School leaders and campaign volunteers from Citizens for Upper Arlington Schools had gathered at the central office. By 9:30 p.m., Superintendent Jeff Weaver looked around the room and said, “I think I can say now that our levy was voted down.
“It doesn’t look good for our effort, but I want to say how proud I am of everyone who worked so hard for this levy,” Weaver said. “It is not common in UA to have a defeat of a levy, but that is where we are going.”
For the first time in 23 years, an Upper Arlington school levy had formal opposition. Ten residents created Educate UA in September to campaign against the school levy.
“I am still shaking,” Educate UA organizer Joyce Blake, a former Upper Arlington teacher, said Tuesday night. “I am amazed and can still barely believe it. We were just a small group of people. It definitely was a strong group effort. We are proud of the voters of Upper Arlington.”
Blake said school district voters “were educated and engaged in the process.”
“We were outspent by at least 10:1 but the ‘It’s OK to Say No’ message resonated with the taxpayers,” she said. “The message was sent to the school board and administration to look at compensation packages before asking the Upper Arlington taxpayer for more money.”
The 5.8-mill levy would have cost homeowners an additional $178 in annual taxes per $100,000 in property value and would have generated about $9.2 million for Upper Arlington schools.
Educate UA members said the average home price in Upper Arlington is close to $300,000, meaning property owners would pay more than $500 in additional taxes each year if Issue 51 had passed.
Educate UA also campaigned heavily on the district’s $15,172 cost per pupil, which members said is too high compared to other central Ohio districts that also earned “excellent with distinction” rankings on the state report card but spent thousands of dollars less per pupil.
District Treasurer Andy Geistfeld said the district has lost $2.6 million in state funding so far and he projects an additional loss of $1 million in state funds “in the near future.”
Weaver said school leaders “should not react too quickly” to the fact the levy failed.
“It is incumbent upon us to take a deep breath and know that there are many parts that go into our operations,” he said. “One piece of the puzzle is state funding. We won’t know yet what impact the state funding changes will have. Our 5.8-mill levy failed and it is up to our administrators to explore the avenues we have open to us.
“We should go forward with confidence that this is still an excellent school district,” he said. “We have to accept the decision that was handed to us.”
Weaver said it would be premature to talk yet about budget cuts.
“We need to probe the minds of the community and find out why we came out short,” he said.
Board member Margie Pizzuti said she knows the community values education.
“It presents a challenge in any effort when you have organized opposition,” she said. “Clearly, the votes of the community have shown us that the tough economy is affecting them. We believe we were prudent when we stretched a three-year levy to five years. We need to step back now and determine what our citizens are willing to spend.”
Citizens for UA Schools campaign chairman Chris Yerington said his volunteers “talked to thousands of people and visited 8,300 homes.”
“I’m emotionally crushed by this defeat, but it is an issue that went down, not ourselves,” he said. “We clearly did everything we could have to get the message out. We did a great job, but we lost. I really love my community even more after being a part of this team.”
Geistfeld said the district will “sit back and look at what this means.”
“It will likely mean cuts for next school year and some changes in our educational programs,” he said. “The community has spoken and there will be some changes. We will not make any rash decisions, but sit back and think through what this means for us.”