In the midst of Upper Arlington Schools' largest capital project to upgrade school facilities, district leaders are preparing for a 2020 levy campaign and touting an initiative to nurture the well-being of students and staff.

During the 2019 State of the Schools address Nov. 14, Superintendent Paul Imhoff said projects to rebuild Upper Arlington High School and renovate or rebuild five elementary buildings are on schedule and on budget.

Those projects are being funded by a bond issue approved by voters in November 2017 that, over 38 years, will generate $230 million.

As construction progresses on those six schools, Imhoff said, district leaders are preparing to put a new operating levy before voters in November 2020.

Unlike the bond issue that's funding the building work, operating levies provide revenue for day-to-day district expenses, such as teacher salaries, instructional and pupil support, technology and transportation.

Voters last approved an operating levy as part of the same November 2017 ballot package that brought forth the bond issue for the facilities projects. It was 3.75 mills and generates approximately $6.3 million annually.

"The Board of Education has been saying since 2015 ... that our next operating levy is going to occur in November of 2020," Imhoff said, adding the district's financial support from the state has remained flat for the past two decades.

"School districts like us have to come back to the ballot every few years for a brand-new, continuing (permanent) operating levy," he said. "The reason for that is there is no other way for us to deal with inflation because all of our levies bring in a fixed amount of money and they never grow."

The district didn't announce the size of the levy it would seek or how much it would cost taxpayers.

But Imhoff said voters would be asked to support a lower millage than what would have been requested if the November 2017 bond to fund the building upgrades hadn't been approved "because we would've been forced to use operating dollars to put more and more Band-Bids on buildings again."

Enrollment growth is driving up operations expenses, officials said.

"In the last decade, enrollment across the district has grown nearly 10%," said Kathy Jenney, the district's associate superintendent of human resources and operations. "That's well over 500 students.

"We anticipate our district will grow even more rapidly in the next 10 years. Our most recent third-party enrollment projections indicate we will grow by 20%, or by more than 1,200 students, by 2029."

In addition to the facilities projects and plans for a new operating levy, officials touted a portion of the district's 2019-22 strategic plan that seeks to promote "whole learning" and well-being for students and staff.

"At the core of our new strategic plan is whole learning," said Andy Hatton, associate superintendent of learning and leadership. "It builds on our long-running philosophy of educating and supporting the whole child. We want to create those unforgettable learning experiences that our students carry with them.

"We believe well-being is critical to fostering a safe and inclusive learning environment where our students and staff can thrive. A very important part of our commitment to well-being and belonging is our focus on diversity, equity and inclusion. We are committed to challenging and supporting every student every step of the way."

Jean Piper, who has two children attending schools in the district and works as an English language tutor for international students at Barrington Elementary School and Jones Middle School, said she was impressed with how the event presented the district's vision for education and financial management.

"I think that, as always, they did an amazing job of presenting in a wholistic way who we are as a district," she said. "I think it was nice to have that dynamic of all of us in one place learning together about the wonderful things going on in the district in a cohesive way."

Charlene Barclay, a grandmother to an Upper Arlington High School graduate, a high school student and student at Wickliffe Progressive School, was pleased as well.

She said she hears negative comments from a segment of the community about the tax burden the district places on homeowners and was pleased to see district officials demonstrate Upper Arlington property tax rates rank seventh out of 15 central Ohio districts.

"I was floored when I saw where we ranked," Barclay said.

"But what these kids get here is stupendous."

Although she hasn't seen the tax increase that will be proposed on the November 2020 ballot, Barclay said, she's inclined to support the levy because she wants Upper Arlington students to continue to receive top-tier academic opportunities.

"If you pass that, you're supporting the schools," she said.

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