Licking County News

Licking Heights

District officials seek dialogue in wake of bond defeat

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Following a special election defeat Aug. 5, Licking Heights might make another attempt at a 2.86-mill bond request on the May 2015 ballot.

However, a May ballot issue hasn't been decided for certain and district officials acknowledge they have a lot of work to do in the meantime.

"We need to be all one district," Superintendent Philip Wagner said.

According to unofficial results from the Franklin and Licking county boards of elections, the bond issue was rejected 2,108 votes to 1,194 votes.

In Franklin County, the issues received 721 votes in favor to 473 against. However, in Licking County, where the majority of district residents live, the bond issue failed 1,580 to 528, according to the unofficial results.

Licking Heights officials have said the 2.86-mill bond was intended to provide a local match to state funding from the Ohio Facilities Construction Commission.

The bond issue would have raised $26,575,000, with the expectation that the state would provide another $21 million to $30 million.

A new high school building was the primary project under consideration.

The bond would have cost district homeowners about $99 per year per $100,000 of assessed property value.

Wagner said social media and other sources made it clear district residents were divided on the need for the bond issue and in Licking County, there was an organized opposition.

As such, Wagner said, he saw a lot of "misinformation" in the community, such as the number of classrooms that could be added to the existing high school building.

Wagner said some thought 16 could be added, but the actual figure is fewer than half that amount. He also said the gymnasium, cafeteria, HVAC systems and other logistical considerations would be insufficient for a large influx of students.

Board member Matt Satterwhite agreed there was "misinformation" in the community.

"I'm referring to the assertions that this prudent planning for facilities was some kind of secret or conspiracy," Satterwhite said. "The board discussed this plan for the past few years, issued a press release when we approved the ballot measure, put FAQs on our website, sent calls out the community, had special meetings to discuss growth and our options to address it and met with leaders from the anti-school levy group to ensure the facts were clear and understood."

Satterwhite said board members also asked the pro-school levy group to send out a postcard back in June to ensure community members were aware the district had an important issue on the ballot in August so they could prepare and ask questions.

"We knew it would be difficult to compete with the distractions of summer, but once we knew we would be poised to take advantage of the state contribution of up to 54 percent of the building costs, action was required in August to give us the best chance to avoid another year of wasted modular costs and get a building ready by the 2017 school year," Satterwhite said.

"I fear that some tried to capitalize on the special election and create some appearance of conspiracy, even though district leaders laid out the need to get started or lose another year of paying high costs for temporary classrooms."

Board President Brian Bagley went a step farther.

"The anti-levy team ran what many would consider to be a less-than-ethical campaign," Bagley said. "It is the very thing that is wrong with politics in this country."

Bagley said the turnout for Franklin County voters was low.

"There seems to have been a general sense of apathy in most of our Franklin County voters," he said. "We were hoping for a much larger voter turnout, regardless of the vote cast. Decisions are made by those who show up and they just didn't show up."

According to the Franklin County Board of Elections, 1,196 of 8,471 eligible Franklin County voters -- about 14 percent -- cast ballots Aug. 5; 16 cast provisional ballots and 53 others voted early in person or by mail.

Turnout was about 33 percent in Licking County. According to the Licking County Board of Elections, which indicated 2,114 of 6,363 registered voters cast ballots Aug. 5.

While district officials said a November vote may have yielded different results, they agreed an August ballot attempt was important.

"August campaigns are very difficult to run," Bagley said. "However, in order to take advantage of state funds, the chance to start all-day kindergarten, minimize the wasteful spending on modulars and the chance to open a new high school in the fall of 2017, we felt confident in our decision to attempt this in August.

"In addition, some people just can't afford the additional monthly increase. I understand that tension."

Wagner said at the very least, the vote has opened discussion about the district's needs.

"We reached out to some of the opposition and had some good dialogue," he said. "You can't just ignore the problem. The challenge is real."

Satterwhite said that effort would continue.

"Now we are reaching out to all community members, including those vocally against the recent effort, to determine if we can review the facts and determine a solution to our overcrowding problem versus just an opposition to any effort to address these issues for kids," Satterwhite said.

He said some voters indicated they believe the overcrowding issue affects the high school only.

"My hope is that now that we have everyone's attention, they will stay engaged and help provide solutions the real problem that we have," Satterwhite said.

"When we built the current high school, we had about 1,600 students in the district and now we expect to have close to 4,000. We need a plan to address the overcrowding at every building in the district."

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