The Columbus Board of Education could legally return to the ballot to ask voters to share local tax dollars with charter schools. But officials aren't even hinting that they might.

November 7, 2013

The Columbus Board of Education could legally return to the ballot to ask voters to share local tax dollars with charter schools. But officials aren't even hinting that they might.

"The last thing that the mayor is thinking about is another levy," said Dan Williamson, Columbus Mayor Michael B. Coleman's spokesman.

Those decisions will be left to the school board, Williamson said, though Coleman will remain " extremely engaged." The school board and interim superintendent say it's too soon for such talk.

But several groups - including those who opposed the 9.01-mill levy that some 69 percent of voters rejected on Tuesday - spoke out yesterday and on Election Day to say that it's time to return to the table to come up with good ideas for how to fix Columbus City Schools.

"Now is the time to reflect upon where we go from here," said Kwesi Kambon, a pastor and former Columbus school administrator who supported the "no" campaign. "There's got to be a place where we can come together around this. (But) we can't skip steps. We have to do the hard work."

Voters turned down Columbus' issues despite at least $2.3 million spent on the pro-levy campaign. Through mid-October, the campaign spent roughly $116 for each yes vote on Issue 50, the levy. A companion issue creating a new auditor's post was also defeated.

The anti-levy campaign estimates it spent about $4,000, or about 9 cents per no vote.

Absent a second try for a levy, the district still plans $50 million in budget cuts for next school year. While no one knows what would be cut, that's the equivalent of losing about 750 teachers.

If the district would decide to place another levy on the ballot, a state law passed last summer at Coleman's urging doesn't appear to limit the school board from asking to share millage with charter schools.

Both supporters and opponents spoke yesterday of trust. Both sides acknowledged that the ongoing state and federal investigations into what already has been deemed "systemic" student-data manipulation in the district hurt the levy. But they did not agree on whether the so-called Columbus Plan to fix schools was a good idea.

Coleman doesn't believe the election results indicate that voters rejected his reform plan, which included the charter-school component. Voters just don't trust the district, he said.

"I think they've rejected the levy, spending the money," Coleman said Tuesday evening. "The reform plan is a good plan, it's a solid plan. We had the best and brightest working on this.

"The question before the voters is should the voters pay for the execution of all of these reforms, and they said no. And I think they said no because I think the district has to work on its trust issue with the voters."

A group of black ministers and others said yesterday that the defeat does show a lack of trust - but not just in the school board. District residents also didn't trust the business community, they didn't trust all the money poured in to pass the measure and they didn't trust the process.

"I think it's all intertwined," said the Rev. Frederick LaMarr of the Family Missionary Baptist Church on the South Side.

The mayor's Education Commission was steered by money "to get a paid outcome," said the Rev. Dale Snyder of the Bethel A.M.E. Church in Linden.

"That's not how you do community engagement," Snyder said. "Come talk to us. We have some serious questions that we have to get answered."

Williamson said that the pro-levy campaign's polling consistently showed that "due to the trust issue (with the district), this was clearly an uphill battle."

Pollster Martin D. Saperstein, head of the Columbus public-opinion firm Saperstein Associates, said that a poll conducted for The Dispatch showing the levy was too close to call was likely a correct view of voters' opinions when they were surveyed between Oct. 7 and Oct. 19.

"A lot of people hadn't formed hard-and-fast opinions on the issues," he said. "The opposition, even though they didn't have a lot of money, they were organized."

Voter turnout in the district was 18 percent, much smaller than the projected 30 percent turnout that Saperstein based on past off-year elections. Many voters who said they were somewhat likely to support the levy probably didn't vote after a district report on Oct. 15 showed a projected $51 million surplus at the end of next school year, he said.

Saperstein theorizes that the ubiquitous pro-levy campaign commercials may have backfired by reinforcing to opponents that they needed to get to the polls to counter the overwhelming advertising advantage.

"If you were against the levy, every time you saw the ad - even if it had Urban Meyer in it - it reinforced that 'I better get out and vote,'" he said.

Turnout was low. But it was better in precincts where residents voted against the levy, at 19.1 percent. In precincts that were supportive, turnout was 8.3 percent.

Even charter-school parents and those who view charters favorably didn't seem charmed by the levy's offerings, said Bill Sims, who leads the Ohio Association for Public Charter Schools.

"I think where the charter-school community had some hesitation is that there was too much that was unknown," he said yesterday. "We want to have a partnership with the city schools, but what does that partnership look like? And there was no definition to that."

District, business and city officials were quick to say that they won't stop their efforts to improve Columbus schools.

Those who opposed the plan tied to the tax issue say they want to come up with something better. And they want to be heard.

Kambon, former school-board president Terry Boyd and others say they're eager to get together with district and city officials to find what they say will be more realistic and detailed ways to improve schools. Members of anti-levy group "It'sOKAYtovoteNO" said that they'll push for a new parent- and teacher-driven Columbus Plan.