Westerville News & Public Opinion

Otterbein forum

Panelists: Schools still feel effect of 2008 financial crisis

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As voters prepare to decide on a Westerville school levy next month, a panel of experts who participated in a Feb. 6 forum at Otterbein University helped detail how the district fits into Ohio’s school funding system and why revenues have been shrinking.

More than 100 residents filled Riley Auditorium at the Battelle Fine Arts Center Monday night to hear from school and community leaders.

“Everybody always says, ‘Gosh, I wish I knew how schools were funded,” Westerville school district treasurer Bart Griffith said. “We’ve done fliers, postcards and held finance committees to try and explain it, but people are only concerned about it when it comes levy time.”

The two-hour session tried to answer some of those questions.

District officials are hoping to convince voters to approve a 6.9-mill, five-year levy on the March 6 ballot. If approved, it’s expected to cost property owners an additional $210 for every $100,000 of assessed property valuation and raise $16.5 million per year.

The major source of income for most Ohio school districts is a tax on property located within district boundaries. One mill is equal to one-thousandth of a dollar.

District figures show collections from real estate property taxes totaled $92.1 million in fiscal year 2011. That number is forecast to drop to $90 million in 2012 and $88.6 million in 2013.

Participants in Monday’s forum said the impact of the 2008 financial crisis has remained evident as property values have collapsed and state funding has dried up.

In 1985, Westerville received more than half of its revenue from the state. This fiscal year, that number has fallen below 30 percent.

Local Realtor Kathy Greenwell unveiled statistics from the Columbus Board of Realtors that showed Westerville sales numbers had declined 17.7 percent so far this year.

Other areas, including New Albany, Bexley and Worthington have seen double-digit increases, she said.

“It saddens me, not because I’m just a community resident, but because it’s an overall reflection of the school district,” Greenwell said. “People will go to Dublin, Bexley, Upper Arlington and they’re all much better year-to-date in terms of property values.”

Julie Colley, Westerville’s assistant city manager, pointed to a correlation between a strong school district and attracting new business. Site selectors, she said, look at an area’s education system when deciding where to locate.

The need to pay more has pitted neighbor against neighbor, according to one local minister.

“The thing that’s been troubling has to do with the tongue and the tenor,” said Vaughn Bell, pastor at Triumphant Church of God on Harvest Wind Drive. “We know people are passionate, but let us remain respectful of our neighbors and let this be an issue that brings us together.”

Bell’s congregation, like other organizations, uses district buildings for gatherings. Failure of the levy would put those meeting places in jeopardy, he said.

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