Columbus School Levy on Hot Seat at Forum
Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2013
Columbus City Schools’ proposed property-tax levy is either an urgent solution to reform education or a misguided rush to raise money that will be handed to officials who still haven’t fessed up to data-rigging, according to a moderated levy discussion last night.
A standing-room-only crowd of more than 150 spilled out of the doorway of the meeting room of the Whetstone branch of the Columbus Metropolitan Library to hear pro-levy speaker Rhonda Johnson, the president of the Columbus teachers’ union, face off against Jon Beard, an outspoken member of an anti-levy group.
“Things are turning around,” Johnson said. “If the levy fails, we’re going to begin to dismantle the school district.”
But Beard said the school board and community leaders decided “to gamble everything” on an all-or-nothing levy.
Instead, he said, the district should come back in the spring with a new tax issue that wouldn’t tie funding charters and expanding pre-K to funding the needs of the school district.
“Why should we rush to throw money at (charters) now when there really isn’t any reason for it?” Beard asked.
Beard added that the district hasn’t “come clean” with its data scandal and instead hired lawyers.
“This is not a money problem,” Beard said. “The school board still doesn’t admit that data scrubbing is illegal.”
If approved by voters when they go to the polls on Nov. 5, the 9.01-mill levy would raise property taxes 24 percent, adding about $315 to the annual tax bill per $100,000 of home valuation.
About 11 percent would go to high-performing charter schools; the rest would fund expanded pre-K, new-school construction, technology upgrades, teacher recruitment and other programs.
Johnson argued that the district’s students shouldn’t be held “hostage” while state and federal investigators finish their work.
“I expect there are going to be indictments, and I expect people are going to go to jail,” Johnson said.
Johnson seemed to urge the crowd to vote against the three incumbents running for school board, saying, “Are you going to continue to elect the people who are there?” and reminding the group that the union doesn’t endorse any incumbents.
“We really need to look in the mirror ourselves,” Johnson said. “We all ignored what happened at the school board until there was a crisis,” to which the crowd howled “No!” in disagreement that the public shared blame.
Johnson also said there is no way the $8.5 million a year that the levy would allocate for creating preschool classrooms would provide all 4-year-olds with pre-K by 2020 without additional money.
“We don’t even have enough space if we wanted to do that,” she said.
The forum was hosted by the League of Women Voters of Metropolitan Columbus, and moderated by Michael Thompson of WOSU’s Columbus on the Record.
After the meeting, several audience members said they are still undecided about how to vote and said it is going to be a tough decision.
Johnson predicted it will be “a heavy lift” to get the levy approved. Beard said it will all hinge on who decides to vote.