School levy threatens Tiger Nation

Voting for Issue 26, the Cleveland Heights-University Heights 7.9 mill school levy, will put our Tiger Nation on the list of endangered species.

In years past, it was unthinkable for anyone in my family to vote against a school levy. My husband spent his career as a Cleveland Heights elementary school principal. I was the Beachwood Schools communications coordinator for two decades. My sister taught at Shaker High. Our four children are Heights High graduates, and one became a school psychologist. We believed, and still do, in public education.

But this levy, if passed, would make our tax rate Ohio’s highest. The community can’t afford it. Here’s why:

  • Our actual dollars spent per pupil, $21,222, is already fifth highest among 611 school districts in Ohio. We’re in the top 1 percent.
  • School enrollment of 5,029 declined 14 percent since 2011, yet the school board is seeking $8.8 million with this levy, to educate 841 fewer students. That would be an 11.5 percent increase in taxpayer funds, the highest in Ohio. Based on the district’s five-year budget forecast, it would spend $615 million; the highest compared to other districts, and $80 million more than Shaker.
  • The levy would cost the owner of a home valued at $100,000 an added $277 in property taxes yearly. Can you afford to pay $72,000 in property taxes over the next 12 years on your $130,000 home? Some owners could find their property tax higher than their mortgage.
  • While our taxes are among the highest in Cuyahoga County, the state report card has given our schools an overall grade of D.

High taxes and poor grades don’t lead prospective buyers to our community. This levy is a threat to vulnerable citizens who may be forced to sell because they can’t afford to remain in their homes. I’m referring to the elderly, retired, those on fixed incomes and those living in poverty. Nearly 19 percent of Cleveland Heights residents are below the poverty level.

Geoff Johnson, an attorney and longtime Cleveland Heights resident, wrote in a recent Heights Observer, “. . . we lack the income base to support our property taxes at current tax levels. Raising them further will destroy the Heights.” Citing the median Cleveland Heights household income of $36,397, he warns that, with a 2.5 percent annual budget growth, our property tax increases over the next 3­­­–12 years would be astronomical. With tax delinquency rates rising, Johnson stated, “It means we are destroying our taxpayer base.” 

While the board complains that vouchers are a financial drain, levy opponents like Johnson state that even [if one removes] vouchers from the picture, the district is still spending $52 million more than Shaker Heights, $171 million more than Solon, $193 million more than Strongsville, and $188 million more than Euclid.

The school board has placed seven operating levies and a $135-million school improvement bond issue on the ballot since 2000, Jodi Sourini, school board president, said in that the levy is a “big ask” of district voters, but “we have to for the sake of our children.”

What about the seniors in our community without the excellent health care benefits the board affords its administrators and teachers? What about the anxiety and stress many residents are likely to suffer not knowing where the money will come from to pay their taxes and mortgages, and keep their homes?

No one wants to deny children a good education, but the costs have become so extreme that the only way to be fair to everyone calls for compromise. This community has supported the school system beyond the point it can afford. The school board needs to face reality: this district must get its spending in line with other districts of similar size and comparable problems. Otherwise, our schools and community are heading for disaster.

Lois Lichtenstein

Lois Lichtenstein spent the first half of her 40-year career as a Sun Press reporter, and the latter half as Beachwood Schools communications coordinator. After retiring she returned to the Sun Press as a freelance reporter, covering the CH-UH school board during summers, from 2002 to 2008.

Read More on Opinion
Volume 13, Issue 3, Posted 9:34 AM, 02.28.2020