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Analysis: Lakewood voters reject new school again

By Charles Prince

HEBRON – Lakewood bond issue supporters were shocked at the extent of Tuesday’s loss by an unofficial 1,570 to 988 tally.

A larger percentage of voters voted “no” this time (61.38 percent) than in last November’s rejection (58.7 percent).

No one thought it would be an easy win, but there was “cautious optimism.” After all, who could deny that the district needs to replace its hot, cramped and access-challenged 105-year-old elementary school.

Voter turnout county-wide was an abysmal 11.76 percent of registered voters. Only 43 percent of the Lakewood voters last November voted in this election. Lakewood lost 1,466 “yes” votes from its total last November. It appears with just 988 “yes” Tuesday that even parents, grandparents, staff members and recent graduates were lukewarm in supporting the bond issue.

Precinct data is not yet available, but in November only the Village of Hebron voters supported the bond issue. It was rejected in every other Lakewood precinct.

Observers offered a number of explanations for the rejection. Topping the list in this unscientific survey is the lingering resentment over the new football stadium and how a very low priority project leaped over the top priority – replacing the then 100-year-old elementary school. Even though the school board members who made that poor decision have stepped down voluntarily or were retired by voters, a significant number of voters have lost trust in the district.

Others cite the decision to buy additional land to move the school to the Lakewood campus plus the added cost to build a turn lane off U.S. 40 and a new access road while abandoning the Hebron site as another source of voter discontent. The decision to demolish the two Jackson buildings is also questioned. There’s also an undercurrent belief that Lakewood’s academics aren’t keeping up with expectations.

Superintendent Mary Kay Andrews told The Beacon Wednesday, “There is no doubt that the needs remain for our children and staff to have a new school, as well as improvements at the middle school. Improved and new facilities positively impact an entire community. We will re-evaluate this and move forward. We remain committed to our students!”

While most observers expect the district to return to the ballot soon, possibly at a special election in August, they caution that some of the “no” voters and many of the no-shows want some acknowledgement that they have been heard. That may require a more detailed assessment of where to put the new school and a close look at paring down its estimated $35.7 million cost. Unfortunately, the board has no influence over future interest rates where a 0.5 swing in interest rates at the time bonds are sold can increase or decrease costs by $4 million over the bonds 28-year life. Interest rates were very favorably aligned for the May 7 ballot, but voters either didn’t notice or perhaps care.

Two of the four school issues on the ballot in Licking County were approved. Licking Heights’ voters by a 615-451 vote rejected a 16.5 mill tax levy for 10 years. North Fork voters renewed a one percent school district income tax for another three years by a 577-391 tally. Northridge sought an additional 0.5 percent school district income tax for 27 years to fund permanent improvements and a $22 million bond issue for new facilities and repairs. The bond issue was estimated to cost 4.3 mills for 27 years. Both appeared on the ballot as a single issue; voters agreed by a 1,453 to 1,189 vote.

School tax issues fared better state-wide than in Licking County. Voters across Ohio approved 76 percent of the school tax issues on the May 7 ballot, according to the Ohio School Boards Association. The passage of 79 of 104 issues marked an increase from the 2018 May primary election, when voters approved 63 of 92 school tax issues for a passage rate of 68 percent. Even sixty percent of new school tax requests were approved Tuesday, with 31 of 52 issues passing. In last year’s May primary election, voters approved 13 of 33 new tax issues for a 39 percent passage rate.

Strong support for renewal school tax proposals continued, with 50 of the 52 issues earning approval Tuesday, a 96 percent passage rate. That was an increase from the 2018 May primary election renewal passage rate of 85 percent. In that election, 50 of 59 renewal issues were approved.

In Fairfield County, Walnut Township Local School District voters renewed an existing emergency levy for five years. The tax rate is estimated at 6.3 mills to raise $1 million per year for current operations. The vote was 360 – 263, with just 19,87 percent of registered voters turning out.

“Yesterday’s election showed just how important citizens think their public schools are,” said Ohio School Boards Association (OSBA) Director of Legislative Services Jennifer Hogue. “But, most of the issues voters approved were renewals; the passage rate for new funding requests was dramatically lower. That means those districts will face increasing challenges in meeting their students’ academic needs and replacing aging and outdated buildings.”

While election results are complete, they have not been officially certified by the Ohio secretary of state. For district-by-district details on current and past elections, visit OSBA’s online database of school tax issues at http://links.ohioschoolboards.org/19699.

Voters are being asked for the second time May 7, to approve an additional levy to replace the 105-year-old Hebron Elementary School and make critical repairs at the high and middle schools. Beacon file photo.

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