ST. PARIS – Graham Local Schools will look to voters to pass a 1 percent earned income tax on May 8, six months after voters defeated the ballot issue in the November 2017 election.
If the levy passes, it is expected to generate $1.9 million annually for five years.
Last November, Graham’s levy was defeated by voters 2,053 votes to 1,342 votes.
Graham Local Schools Superintendent Kirk Koennecke said low voter turnout was a factor in why the levy failed. He also said many parents in the district were not aware of the school district’s financial need.
“What we learned was that many of our own parents were not aware of our financial need. We learned that some of our parents aren’t registered voters,” Koennecke said. “We learned that some of our community members that are not connected to the schools don’t have the same level of commitment maybe that some of our other more connected community members and parents do and we learned that we had to get our message out exponentially in many different ways. While we tried to do that for a year, obviously some people did not hear us and our need did not go away so we have tried to be creative this second time around and not just invite people in but also reach out in different ways to try to again raise the dialogue about attention to our financial situation.”
Koennecke said school district representatives have done this by going to new venues such as churches, public meetings, forums held via Facebook Live and parent action forums to spread the word of the financial need. Graham staff has gone door-to-door to engage with people personally or participated in phone banks about the levy.
While the levy failed last November, Koennecke said the school’s need did not go away. Describing the school’s current finances, Koennecke said the school is treading water to maintain the current programming.
“If we fail in May we have to cut $1.5 million from our budget to continue to tread water,” Koennecke said. “We’re trying to make our community aware that we’re asking for new operating funds to maintain what we’re working on and we’re already operating with a lean budget and a lean staff and trying to be innovative with that setting. We don’t expect that to change much but if we were to fail it would change drastically – I mean $1 million out of a $19 million budget is significant and we’re talking about a district that has lost 15 percent of its population in the last decade, that’s another $2 million that’s walked out of the district that we don’t get back every year.
“We hope that with the strategic plan we have in place and the things that we’re working on and the staff that we have here we’re going to stem the tide of losing enrollment by attracting people to stay now and we hope that with some new operating funds we can really maintain what we do have and then try to be as creative as we can again on a lean budget moving forward.”
In the event that the levy fails, Koennecke said school transportation would be greatly affected.
“We would go from providing a holistic service to a limited service,” Koennecke said. “We would change routes.”
Other changes Koennecke said would happen if the levy fails include cutting support staff, an increase in fees for participation in activities, an increase in preschool fees and operational budget cuts across the board in all buildings.
The earned income tax is a tax on earned income only. This is income people receive from wages, salary, self-employment income, tips and other compensation and does not include property, social security, retirement, pensions, interest, dividends, disability, workers’ compensation, welfare or child support.
“I think the last time around what we learned is people wondered why we were asking for an earned income tax versus property,” Koennecke said. “What we’ve tried to explain is we did research and homework. We did phone surveys with over 350 families and what we were told very clearly was this is not a good time for a property tax and so the board chose to go the earned income tax route.
“The second piece of that answer is they chose an earned income tax because they did not feel it would negatively impact some of the demographic groups in our county and might be easier for people to understand and support since if it’s not going to affect them in certain ways.”
Koennecke said the school chose an amount they felt was fair, 1 percent, and added the school’s operating tax rate is lower than anybody in the surrounding area has. He said this would still not put the school in a greater position than any other district in the area, but it would help them move forward financially.
“This levy is not about adding bells and whistles to what we already have and what we’re already working on,” Koennecke said. “It’s about being able to maintain our programming and to continue to update curriculum, labs and supplies and materials that kids and teachers need to do their jobs every day so that our students can be competitive.”
An example of outdated curriculum Koennecke referenced was social studies, which has not been updated in kindergarten through 12th grade for over a decade.
“We need to spend time and money on that, it makes sense to spend time and money on curriculum for students and teachers to use,” Koennecke said. “Those are the things we’re going to do as we move forward, we’re not looking to shoot for the moon.”
Levy opponents cite money spent on professional PR
An anonymous public blog in WordPress has documented payments Graham Local Schools made to a marketing consulting firm called Allerton Hill. This blog link has been shared with the public by a comment on the Urbana Daily Citizen Facebook page in the past week. The blog and its supporting documentation allege this agreement was largely a thinly-veiled attempt to bolster the levy campaign.
Upon investigation of the blog’s claims, the Daily Citizen has confirmed with Graham Superintendent Kirk Koennecke that the district contracted with Allerton Hill in the fall of 2016 for a rate of $3,000 per month. The firm’s website says its specialty is “connecting schools with their communities.” Allerton Hill has offices in Washington, D.C. and Columbus, Ohio.
The district continues to retain Allerton Hill at a rate of $3,000 per month as of the publication of this story.
Nick Walton can be reached at 937-652-1331 Ext. 1777 or on Twitter @UDCWalton.