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School district levy creates controversy in the community

The political action committee Yes for Talawanda supports an operational levy for Talawanda School District.
The political action committee Yes for Talawanda supports an operational levy for Talawanda School District.

Voters in Butler County will have a new issue on their general election ballot in November. For the first time since 2004, Talawanda School District (TSD) is proposing a levy to help with operational services.

Pat Meade, president of Talawanda School Board, said the funding will go toward busing, salaries, STEM, Advanced Placement classes, sports and extracurricular fees, social workers, counselors, intervention staff and more.

If passed, Issue five on the ballot will increase residents’ property taxes by $199.50 annually per $100,000 assessed value and generate $4.8 million a year.

Meade is advocating for the levy outside his role on the school board.

Some residents, however, are worried about the increase in cost and following repercussions the levy might have on the community.

An increase in property taxes causes concern 

The previous levy passed almost 20 years ago was a 1% income tax levy that has grown with inflation, but Meade said the district’s expenses currently exceed revenues.

“We got to 2019, and we had a $1 million deficit, and we’ve had a deficit in 2020,” Meade said. “In 2021, I think we came out even, but we’re in slight deficit spending [this year]. We can’t keep that up.”

Sam Morris is one of the co-chairs for Yes for Talawanda, a political action committee (PAC) advocating for the levy. Morris said there are only three ways to dig TSD out of its financial problems.

“If you’re looking at a deficit, there’s only three ways to solve that: make cuts, increase revenue or do a mix of those two things,”  Morris said. “[TSD] has been making cuts, and it has proven to be not enough.”

Nicole Baldwin lives in Hanover Township and remembers when TSD passed the income tax levy in 2004. Baldwin, who has two children attending Marshall Elementary School in TSD, said she doesn’t remember the exact amount her taxes increased, but she is hesitant to vote for the upcoming levy.

“I’m concerned on the taxes and how much it’s going to cost,” Baldwin said. “I’m concerned on the way the money is going to be dispersed and how it’s going to be allocated.”

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Meade said in the last few years, TSD has cut $4 million out of the operating budget by cutting 10.5 teacher positions, buying out older teachers to hire new teachers for less money and negotiating a smaller pay raise for teachers.

Teaching positions may be at risk without levy

Meade said a large portion of the funding generated by the levy will go toward supporting teachers in TSD.

In August 2021, the TSD teachers union agreed to a 2% salary increase for the 2021-2022 school year, a 1% increase for the 2022-2023 school year and a 0% increase for the 2023-2024 school year.

Although Meade said TSD has not fallen into a teacher shortage, if the levy doesn’t pass, that could change.

“We’ve been able to fill up all our positions so far,” Meade said. “I do not think, down the road, that we will maintain that with a 1% [raise] and a 0% [raise].”

Jen DeBaun, who has two children in TSD, is voting for the levy because she’s worried about the positions that could be cut without it.

“My seventh grader receives educational assistance services,” DeBaun said. “He’s on an IEP [Individualized Education Program] plan, and if the levy fails … they’re going to let go of teaching aids.”

Levy sparks debate of sports and extracurriculars

Another contested issue surrounding the levy is the funding of sports.

In 2018, TSD suspended the pay-to-play fee for sports and other extracurriculars; however, if the levy doesn’t pass, the school has considered bringing it back.

Previously, the fee was about $150, with an additional $75 fee if the student participated in a second sport and a cap at $500 for families with more than one child participating in extracurriculars.

Although no official numbers have been released, Meade said the school board has been looking at similar school districts, specifically Ross and Edgewood, with pay-to-play fees of more than $800 per sport.

DeBaun said she is willing to pay extra in taxes if it means her child can still participate in the activities he enjoys.

“My seventh grader who needs a teaching assistant is in cross country, and I see how important sports are for kids,” DeBaun said. “He tells me every day that he is happier running, and I don’t want him to lose that.”

Although TSD hasn’t released how much the pay-to-play fee will be, Jacob Schulte, a TSD and Miami University alum, is worried the fee will be extremely high and will prevent students from participating in sports and extracurriculars due to financial concerns.

“As someone who remembers from a not-so-distant past, when it was just a couple of hundred dollars, for [the School Board] to be throwing around $700, $800, $1000, it almost seems like a scare tactic or something,” Schulte said.

Nicole Bays, a resident in Milford Township, also has two children in TSD and agrees with Schulte that the School Board is threatening the residents to evoke fear and garner votes, but she remains firm in her decision to vote against Issue five due to TSD’s previous spending habits.

“I would hope that people consider that checking ‘no’ doesn’t mean you don’t care for the teachers, you don’t care for the kids, you don’t care about the community as a whole,” Bays said. “There are other options to supplement the incomes of teachers and reach fiscal responsibility without tapping into the community’s pockets.”

Conversely, Morris hopes voters recognize the need for a successful school district and said the only way to garner enough financial support is through the passing of the levy.

“My hope is that if the Talawanda levy is successful, and we can get back to at least the cost of living increases for our teachers in 2024, so they're not being left behind,” Morris said.

Residents interested in finding out how much the levy will increase their taxes can verify the amount through Butler County’s Auditor’s website.

Early voting started Oct. 12 and the general voting takes place Nov. 8.