School Levy Profile: Cleveland City Schools

Perhaps the highest profile and highest stakes of all the levies on the November ballot is that of the Cleveland City Schools.

This summer, legislators in Columbus enacted reforms necessary for Cleveland to implement its education reform plan. The bill allowed the district to implement a performance-based pay scheme, which closely mirrored language in the controversial SB5 collective bargaining law voters rejected in 2011. It further enabled locally-raised levy dollars to flow to charter schools, a first-of-its-kind measure in the state. It was part of an overall package of reform that contained some elements that, in our analysis, Innovation Ohio has welcomed, such as universal preschool and early childhood academies.

The plan is in stark contrast to what’s been happening in the district. Having been forced to reduce spending by $114 million, the district eliminated 565 teachers and staff in the past year and cut salaries for those who remained. Much of these cuts were necessary after Governor Kasich enacted a state budget that reduced funding for the district by $85 million. For his part, Kasich — who, in 2011, urged voters across the state to reject school levies – has expressed support for plans to place a levy on the ballot this November. But other than words of support, Governor Kasich and state lawmakers have not contributed any new funding to ensure the district’s plans are a success, even while a half billion dollars accumulates in the state’s Rainy Day Fund.

So Cleveland City Schools will appear on the November ballot, asking for a 4-year, 15-mill levy to raise $77 million to plug the gap caused by state budget cuts, as well as to implement the ambitious changes needed to turn the district around. It would be the first new levy for the district since 1996.

Issue 107 television commercial:

If successful, the levy will allow the district to use the resources to accelerate the closing of failing charter schools, improve graduation rates and college readiness, enhance safety and the classroom environment, in part through the implementation of more technology. The school day will be lengthened and the school year itself may be examined, at least for certain specialized schools.

For the owner of the “average” Cleveland home, valued at $64,000, tax bills will go up by $294 per year. Residents of some Cleveland communities with higher average home values will be asked for much more.

In addition to the Governor, the levy has the support of the business community, who will be on the hook to pick up 55 percent of the overall tab. A recent Plain Dealer editorial called it “the most important school levy in Cleveland’s history.” Polls indicate the levy is favored by area voters.

Voter support is critical.

If the levy fails, the district will face a $50 million deficit next year, necessitating the reduction of up to 800 staff. Schools will be closed, bus transportation cut back and the state will assume control of the district.