April 17, 2014

Elyria
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Midview levy campaign ‘has pitted resident against resident’

Going on two decades without an infusion of additional tax dollars to boost revenue, Midview Schools is trying to pull off what some deem impossible by convincing voters to impose a hefty tax increase on themselves.

On Feb. 5, voters in the Midview school district — an area that encompasses Grafton, the rural areas of Carlisle, Eaton and Grafton townships, and the southern portion of Elyria — will decide if a 10-year, 9.75-mill property tax levy that would raise $4.6 million annually should pass.

History isn’t in Midview’s favor: Midview voters have rejected 14 new-money levies since 1993.

But the push this time — with so much on the line, including all extracurriculars that are touted for producing well-rounded graduates — is causing tension in the small village of Grafton.

Ask residents of Grafton and the Midview district to describe the town and you will hear cliches such as, “It’s a place where neighbors help neighbors,” and “Everyone knows everyone.”

That is exactly how 63-year-old Elizabeth Bistline, a one-time factory worker who now works as a state-tested nurse’s assistant for the Lorain County Board of Developmental Disabilities described Grafton on a cold Thursday afternoon.

She and her husband, Glen, live a stone’s throw from the Midview Elementary campus.

“This is the kind of place where you don’t get the Police Department getting called out on murders,” she said. “They get called out because a neighbor’s dog is barking too much.”

Yet, Bistline said, her rural community is morphing into something different and the much-talked about tax issue that will be decided Feb. 5 is to blame.

“It has pitted resident against resident,” she said.

David Gilchrist, a 45-year-old father of three from Carlisle Township, said the levy has definitely caused people to be a little bit more passionate on both sides of the issue.

“I can understand people don’t want new taxes,” he said. “I don’t want new taxes, but it’s a necessity, and the fact is the district is going to be short without it.”

Gilchrist, who has two children who graduated from Midview and a seventh-grader at the middle school, said his position with the school — assistant coach for the eighth grade football team — is not driving his decision to vote for the levy.

“A lot of people blame the school board, but they have no control over the state mandates and what cuts from the state they receive, “ he said. “They don’t want to come to us, but this is something that is out of their hands.”

This levy is the latest attempt by the district of roughly 3,200 students to raise the capital needed to stave off a state takeover. A $2.3 million deficit next year puts the district on the cusp of the very thing school officials strive to avoid.

If the levy fails, Midview, which has about 340 employees and an approximately $28.5 million annual budget, will eliminate 53 positions. Twenty teachers, 30 non-teaching positions and three administrators would be cut as well as busing for students who live 2 miles or less from schools. The busing cuts would affect 100 to 200 of the district’s 3,300 students.

Superintendent John Kuhn said he the district could be placed on fiscal watch if it is unable to make cuts or bring in new revenue. And, it’s not as if the district has not operated with a mindset toward efficiency over the years.

State data shows Midview spends $7,888 per student, compared with the county average of $9,739 and the overall Ohio average of $10,571. The district is receiving about $1.3 million less annually in state taxpayer money and $789,000 less because of the elimination of the business tax known as the Tangible Personal Property Tax.

If the levy is approved, it will cost the owner of a $100,000 home an additional $299 a year. But many wonder if it will also cost friendships in the tight-knit community.

“I hesitate to say anything when I am out in public that I’m against the levy because immediately someone will jump up and say “Don’t you support the kids? “ Bistline said. “But that is the furthest thing from the truth. I have a nephew who sings in the choir and I love him dearly. I mean, I graduated from Midview and so did my husband. It’s not that I’m not vested in this school district because I definitely am.”

Bistline said she just can’t afford higher taxes. She estimates by the value of her home and other properties she owns her taxes will increase by $1,200 a year.

Can the community come together?

Parent Jill Schaefer, who has been on the front line of levy campaigns for roughly four years as a co-chair of the Midview Compass Committee, knows there are residents out there who say they can’t afford to vote for higher taxes.

“But to that I say “How can you afford not to?’ ” said the mother of two. “It’s about the big picture for me. Are you going to be a resident or are you going to be a member of the community? In a community, everyone sticks together and does what is best for the community.”

Schaefer said the levy is as much about property values as it is about ensuring Midview graduates are ready for college. It’s also about community pride.

The Midview Compass Committee started five years ago mainly as a parents’ group that focused on bringing the schools and the community together. The idea was the quash the “us-versus-them” mentality. Soon, members learned that Midview needed a new face if it were ever to have a chance of passing a levy.

“My children are third-generation Midview kids, and we want to keep it that way,” she said. “But that is what scares me the most, because if we lose everything — I, like a lot of other people — will be looking elsewhere.”

The value of property after tax levies fall is often thrown around anecdotally by levy supporters with no information to back it up. But Jerry Rampelt, of the Support Ohio School Research and Education Foundation, said it’s truer than homeowners may believe.

“Parents with children will avoid buying homes when there is financial chaos,” he said.

After Little Miami Local Schools in Morrow County had eight straight levy defeats, Rampelt said property values dropped 21 percent in the first seven months of 2011. The study was conducted by two local real estate agents who concluded, “Parents don’t want to risk their kids’ education on schools in turmoil, schools with no bus service and schools with program cutbacks.”

“Residents essentially took the loss and walked away from the district,” Rampelt said.

News reports said that after the loss the district moved into fiscal emergency and a state-appointed commission began overseeing the finances. Layoffs, closed buildings and cuts plagued the district for at least two years until voters finally approved a 13.95-mill tax levy and steps were taken to bring back cherished programs such as half-day, every-day kindergarten, as well as music, art and gym.

Kuhn has said the cuts in Midview will be similarly devastating, as it will move the district back to state standards.

Kindergarten through fourth grades would decrease to five hours of schooling daily and fifth through 12th grades would drop to 5½ hours daily. Most art, athletics, foreign languages, library services and music programs would be eliminated, as well as Air Force Junior ROTC.

“We are going to be putting out high school kids who are barely able to get into college,” Schaefer said. “Those who do get into college will be ill-prepared because of everything the district will have to cut.”

In hopes of sealing the deal, a host of levy supporters hit the streets Saturday in a door-to-door canvass of the community. Others will be at the middle school manning the phones.

“We feel this time there needs a little more personal touch,” she said. “We really wanted to talk to people. We feel like there has been a lot of misunderstanding about what has happened. We know that people want to feel as if they have been heard.”

Lisa Ward, also a Midview Compass Committee co-chair, said she is noticing something different about this levy campaign — something she hasn’t seen in the previous pushes in the district. The community has rallied behind issue, sometimes showing up in drives at education forums.

Lines of division

The criticism of levy opponents — or even those who are perceived as opponents — has only increased the closer it gets to Election Day.

A day after parent Lynne Schroeder made an impassioned plea to the school board to be more accountable, supporters of the levy were not afraid to paint her as someone who is voting against the levy.

“Don’t be like parent Lynne Schroeder — it’s only a few hundred dollars in taxes— you spend that much a month on groceries or gas,” one woman wrote on Facebook under a link to a story Schroeder was quoting in. “Don’t let our kids down! Vote yes or stay home!”

To see her name on the Internet made Schroeder furious, especially considering she plans to vote for the levy.

“Thank God those that know me know my heart is as big as it gets, and my children are the most important thing to me,” said the mother of three. “I would rather take on more taxes a year for a school district I am proud of then to be in a poor district and face possibly finding a private school for my children to attend.”

Schroeder, who has lived in Grafton since 2004, said with her yes vote she wants to see more accountability from the Midview board.

“I want to see line-by-line what the education of our children is costing,” she said. “I’ve already called the treasurer to set up a meeting one-on-one because I want to know where my money is going and where the fat can be trimmed without it hurting my children.”

The desire for more information and the willingness to ask questions does not automatically make someone a levy foe, Schroeder said.

“What some people don’t understand is the way they are speaking to their voting counterpart is exactly why some people will vote no,” she said. “You can’t bully someone into changing their minds.”

Bistline said she knows she represents a minority voice in the debate. While she is sure there are lot of other residents who will vote no next month, she is one of the few making her choice known now.

“I believe that the board and administration at Midview keeps asking for money when they are very poor stewards of the money they have,” Bistline said. “You can ask any good butcher. You don’t chop off the lean part of the pork chop, you chop off the fat. So I don’t feel they have exhausted everything they can to get themselves out of this situation.”

Still, Schaefer said she knows it will be facts — the fact that only 13 of Ohio’s 613 school districts spend less than Midview per pupil and the fact that the stadium refurbishment that has drawn ire by levy critics wasn’t paid for by the school district but rather by donations earmarked for that work and that work only — that will help her line up the necessary yes votes.

Levy supporters are not trying to make enemies, she said. Rather, they are trying to make sure voters are informed.

“No one wants to pull the community apart over this,” she said. “Whatever happens on Feb. 5, I hope people know their neighbors will still be their neighbors.”

Contact Lisa Roberson at 329-7121 or lroberson@chroniclet.com.