This summer, Westerville City School District allocated taxpayer funds to a law firm for help removing a tax cut measure placed on the ballot by Taxpayers For Westerville Schools (TFWS), one of a number of Ohio citizen groups working to turn back local tax increases. Westerville Schools ultimately prevailed, but only after ignoring a warning from 1851 Center for Constitutional Law executive director Maurice Thompson that hiring counsel to block the issue would violate state law.
Westerville City School District spokesman Greg Viebranz confirmed to Media Trackers on September 26 that the school’s legal costs – such as paying Bricker & Eckler, LLP to draft memoranda to the Franklin County Board of Elections and Ohio Supreme Court – are typically paid “from the General Fund,” which is funded by tax revenue.
Absent some exception not mentioned by Viebranz, this would confirm allegations the school district used taxpayer money to oppose a levy issue.
Ohio Revised Code 9.03 (C)(1)(e) states that “[N]o governing body of a political subdivision shall use public funds to […] publish, distribute, or otherwise communicate information that […] supports or opposes the nomination or election of a candidate for public office, the investigation, prosecution, or recall of a public official, or the passage of a levy or bond issue.”
In March 2012, Westerville voters approved an “emergency” levy by a scant margin of 585 voters, following repeated defeats of similar levy requests.
The Westerville City School District has one of the highest tax rates in Central Ohio; according to data from the Franklin County Treasurers’ Office and real estate website Zillow.com, the school district collects an average of $4,634 annually from each property owner in the district, a rate which is among the highest in the region.
Attempting to end the trend of ever-higher local taxes, TFWS gathered petitions to reduce a 2009 Westerville property tax increase with legal help from Thompson, who expressed an interest in using state law to assist similar groups in reducing local taxes across Ohio. The Ohio Supreme Court sided with the school district on September 20, greatly hampering the ability of taxpayer groups to reduce local taxes by ballot initiative.
Despite the setbacks suffered by Westerville taxpayers at the hands of government officials and lobbyists, local officials face a growing number of taxpayer-advocacy groups upset with seemingly endless campaigns for higher taxes and organizing to break the trend.
As reported by the Columbus Dispatch, groups such as TFWS in Westerville and Educate UA in Upper Arlington are part of a political movement gaining steam, as more Ohio citizens come around to the belief that school districts need greater efficiency and more responsible use of taxpayer funds instead of tax hikes passed with the threat of slashing basic school services and extracurricular activities.
David Varda, executive director of the Ohio Association of School Business Officials, linked the local taxpayer-advocacy groups to “this overall debate in our society right now about the level of taxation, the level of government services.”
He told the Dispatch that school boards and other local officials should plan to face the reality of groups like Educate UA and TFWS. “It’s a force, at least in the near future, that I think they’re going to have to deal with,” Varda said.
The rise of pro-taxpayer groups, said Varda, will change the nature of school levy campaigns, from “public-information campaigns” to “political campaigns.” Without coordinated opposition, school districts enjoy the advantages of local media, vendor, and union support when arguing the need for higher taxes.
For its part, TFWS concluded an announcement following the Supreme Court decision by writing, “Taxpayers for Westerville Schools will continue working in the community to bring about fiscal sanity to our school district. It is a shame that our Board of Education doesn’t know how to put our children first – i e. keeping programs and services and employees while balancing what the community can afford. District residents must continue to be active and supportive of fundamental change or the next levy they see will most likely be for $25,000,000 or more.”
[Editor’s note, 10/05/2012: Corrected spelling of Greg Viebranz’s last name in the second & third paragraphs.]