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Levy Campaign Grows Contentious

One might mistake the upcoming Franklin City Schools levy for an ordinary and contentious national political fight. Thus far, the campaign is filled with many aspects of a typical national political drama: opposing sides, mudslinging, hyperbole, a partisan angle, and anonymous sources with shocking charges. But this is not a Democrat v. a Republican—instead, it is merely a local school levy.

(Full disclosure: I have a personal interest in the outcome of this election. I have not consulted the levy campaign regarding this article, however.)

Back to the levy: Franklin residents have not voted for new money for their school system since 2004 when a 9.79 mill levy passed. In 2010, voters passed a renewal levy, but they have since rejected additional funding in other elections, including a bond issue in 2010 that would have built a new high school—the district’s first new building in four decades—with a subsidy from the federal government.

The district’s last levy, in November 2013, failed by a familiar double-digit margin. There was no identified and organized opposition at the time and the measure still failed miserably for the second time in successive elections, prompting officials to alter their electoral strategy. This time around the campaign is much more organized, but an unidentified opposition has emerged in recent weeks.

An unnamed person or group began disseminating a flyer with information the campaign contends is largely inaccurate. One supporter of the levy—a local pastor—recorded a video offering rebuttals to many of the flyer’s contentions, including one claim of note that simply sounds preposterous: the flyer claimed the district increased teaching staff by more than 100 while enrollment only increased by a similar amount. The flyer lacked the typical disclosure noting the person or group presenting, and paying for, the document.

Then, the levy was injected with a dose of partisan politics when Warren County Tea Party Chair Kelly Kohls was quoted in a Media Trackers article on the levy—Media Trackers is arguably a Tea Party site. Kohls painted her opposition to the levy in terms of the liberal-conservative struggle over the size and scope of governments, a debate usually framed in state and national matters.

But the Media Trackers piece is very flawed—it contains numerous demonstrably false assertions and a glaring lack of citations, leading one to wonder how much information was backed by any sort of research.

For example, the piece asserts that the Franklin levy would amount to a 30% increase in property taxes. According to the state of Ohio, Franklin has a property tax rate of 57.98 mills, or $57.98 per $1000 of value. The Franklin levy would add 7.92 mills, which is closer to a 13% property tax increase. While this is not insignificant, it is not 30%.

Another example: the Media Trackers article cites the aforementioned flyer, which stated that property tax revenue in Franklin had increased by 12.9% since 2011. If that is the case, then little if any of the increased revenue was spent on the school system. According to Ohio Department of Education data, since 2011, property tax revenue spent on education in Franklin has remained roughly flat; such revenue is also projected to decline significantly in the coming years.

Media Trackers also zeroed in on teacher pay with a sort of class envy play in the form of a red herring, noting that teacher pay was higher than that of the median taxpayer. The article states that teacher pay increased by 15.1% from 2005 to 2011. Perhaps—I did not look for this data specifically—but expenditures on salaries in general have been flat since 2011.

One could argue that the Tea Party is misguided with their involvement on this issue. The levy is not an inherently partisan issue. If the Tea Party wishes to scale back the size and scope of the federal and state governments, this is not that fight. Rather, this levy is perhaps something long-neglected—if the district has been running $1 million+ deficits, teachers have forgone raises, and other cuts have been made while additional cuts are planned, then the system probably does need a cash infusion. Here, the Tea Party risks damaging its reputation by engaging in a fight that’s not obviously related to its objectives, however poorly organized they happen to be at any level. Additional risk comes with a media outlet publishing inaccurate, largely un-sourced information.

Ultimately, we have a local school levy that is fairly boiler plate when it comes to ballot measures, but that has somehow taken on the character of nasty and contentious national (or state) political issue. Unfortunately, one side is fighting from the shadows without identifying themselves, all the while peddling demonstrably false information. One could describe the anonymous opponents in many ways, but here, unfair will suffice. To top it off, these folks could be fooling enough voters into rejecting a levy they might otherwise approve given accurate information.