Following decisive rejections in November and March, Firelands board of education members know getting a bond issue passed for a $35.7 million middle and high school is a hard sell.
Now they’re hoping a hybrid income and property tax in which the burden is shared by land owners and workers will be approved in an Aug. 2 special election.
A 36-year, 5.2-mill bond issue and 0.5-mill maintenance levy was defeated 53 percent to 47 percent in November and March. With the defeats fresh on their minds, board members were pessimistic after an April 14 special meeting where they conditionally approving putting the issue on the ballot for an Aug. 2 special election.
Board president Ben Gibson said he understands that some residents are hurting financially, but noted Firelands has the lowest taxes of any of Lorain County’s school districts.
He said it will remain in the bottom 20 percent even if the building project is approved.
Nonetheless, Gibson said it’s always difficult convincing people to pay higher taxes. “The truth is it’s never a good (economic) time to vote for it,” Gibson said.
After the bond issue is certified by the Lorain County auditor’s office, the Firelands board is expected to cast a final vote May 2.
The 3.81-mill property tax would cost the owner of a home valued at $100,000 an additional $133 annually. The average home value for a home in the Firelands school district, which includes parts of Amherst, Brownhelm, Camden, Florence and Henrietta townships as well as South Amherst, is $150,000.
The 0.25 percent income tax would affect workers who live in the school district. A worker earning $50,000 would pay $125 annually for the next 23 years.
Because it would exclude taxing disability, Social Security, and workers’ compensation benefits, board members hope the income tax will more amenable to elderly residents on fixed incomes.
The 135,878-square-foot, 6-12th grade new school would be located next to the current high school at 10643 Vermilion Rd., Henrietta Township. It would open in 2020 and house about 820 students.
Before deciding on a tax combination, board members discussed just building a 9-12th grade school. One option was a 36-year, 4.38-mill property tax costing the owner of a $100,000 home an additional $153 annually.
Another option was a 36-year, 4.12-mill property tax costing the owner of a $100,000 home an additional $144 yearly. That option didn’t include a $1.6 million field house.
A third option was a 0.25 percent income tax combined with a 36-year, 2.87-mill property tax costing an additional $100 annually for the owner of a $100,000 home.
A fourth option was a 36-year, 2.8-mill property tax costing the owner of a $100,000 home an additional $91 annually combined with a 0.25 percent income tax. That option also didn’t include the field house.
New school proponents say it’s needed to replace the aging South Amherst Middle and Firelands High schools built in 1910 and 1954 respectively. The buildings have cooling, heating and plumbing problems.
Renovating the schools would surpass two-thirds the cost of replacing them, according to the Ohio Facilities Construction Commission, formerly known as the Ohio School Facilities Commission. The state will not co-fund school renovations that cost more than two-thirds of replacements.
If approved, state taxpayers would pay $6.2 million of the cost. Board members would prefer to put the issue on the November ballot when a big turnout is expected for the presidential election, but they would lose the state money if they wait.
The project includes $796,000 for the option of abatement and demolition of the middle school. Board member Daniel Pycraft said Firelands would be “screwed forever” if they can’t get the 116-year-old middle school demolished.
“We will be sitting here looking at this building with boards on it and the rats running around it,” he said. “We don’t leave South Amherst with that mess.”
However, Pycraft was doubtful about passage, saying part-time farmers told him they can’t afford higher taxes due to declining crop prices.
Net cash farm income is expected to fall by 2.5 percent in this year, while net farm income is forecast to decline by three percent, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Pycraft said he reluctantly voted yes. “I still think we’re way too high,” he said of the cost.
A frustrated board member Mike O’Keefe disagreed. He said board members have tried to be sensitive to residents’ cost concerns, but some “won’t vote for anything we put on.”
A community advisory committee last year recommended building the new school. The committee included up to 90 people both with and without children in the district, superintendent Mike Von Gunten previously said.
While some parents support a new school, teacher Ellen Gundersen, president of the 103-member Firelands Education Association, said others take the schools for granted. She said it may take hardship like cutting extracurricular activities or not making computer repairs to get voters to support a new school.
“I’m not saying I want to hurt them, but where is the sense of urgency?” said Gundersen, a teacher since 1987. “We keep putting a Band-Aid on it and then they keep saying, ‘Well, they’re OK’”
Evan Goodenow can be reached at 440-988-2801 or GoodenowNews on Twitter.
Photos by Evan Goodenow | Civitas Media Mike O’Keefe (center) speaks on efforts to win over voters in a bid to build a new Firelands school building.