PREBLE COUNTY — A 3.75-mill property tax levy needed to fund construction of a new Preble Shawnee K-5 school building in Camden was defeated at the polls on April 28.
A .75-percent income tax levy that would have increased general operations funding for the Preble Shawnee Local School District also failed to pass.
If approved, the first levy would have taxed property owners in the district at a rate of $3.75 per $1,000 of assessed property value for a period of 25 years. The income tax levy would have taxed residents at a rate of $.75 for every $100 of annual income for a period of five years.
Both measures were initially slated to appear on the ballot March 17, but were postponed due to state-mandated poll closures meant to slow the spread of COVID-19. The measures were defeated by a margin of approximately 350 votes each, with over 2,200 votes being cast overall.
“It’s still not official for another week, so hopefully the margins will at least narrow a bit,” Preble Shawnee Superintendent Matt Bishop said. Bishop stressed the failure of the general operations levy in particular, along with expected reductions in state funding and existing income tax revenue as a result of COVID-19, could force the district to make some tough financial decisions.
“We’re obviously spending more than we’re taking in,” Bishop said. “In order to continue offering the same programs, we have to increase our revenue, and levies are the only local mechanism we have in order to do that.”
“We’re looking at a reduction in state and tax dollars that’s probably going to be worse than what we had during the Great Recession of ‘08,” Bishop continued. “We’re kind of getting hit on three sides here.”
The income tax levy, at least, will most likely appear on the ballot again in November, according to Bishop. If it isn’t passed, residents could see a big change in how the school district operates.
“When it starts becoming a matter of us fundamentally changing what we’re doing, I think those realities are going to become very real for our voters,” Bishop said. “And the decision of how they want to fund their school district is going to become very black and white to them.”
Bishop attempted to respond to criticisms the district has heard about the levies, including the accusation that residents are overtaxed. Preble Shawnee collects fewer tax dollars than any other school district in the county, according to Bishop.
“And even if we had passed both levies, that would still be the case,” Bishop said. “To say that our school district is taxed at a higher rate than others is simply not true.”
Bishop also addressed the fact that the majority of opposition to the property tax levy seems to have come from precincts in Gratis and West Elkton.
“I think looking at the precinct votes is important for the board to do, and it’s no question that the Gratis and West Elkton area voted ‘No’ by a large majority,” Bishop said.
West Elkton residents, in particular, have expressed concerns about the loss of income tax revenue from teachers and staff at West Elkton Intermediate School, as well as fears that the existing school building in West Elkton will be abandoned and left to rot. But the loss of income tax revenue for the village is inevitable, according to Bishop.
“If we have to go from two buildings to one, the West Elkton building would be the one that we would move away from,” Bishop said. “And without a new building, we’d be forced to consolidate people into either Camden Primary or the Junior and Senior High. A school district our size can not continue to be spread out between three different buildings and operate efficiently.”
“As far as the income tax reduction – yes, that would be a tough reality for that community,” Bishop continued. “But ultimately we have to do what we think is best for the district as a whole.”
Bishop also stressed that, if the bond issue were passed, the district’s plan for a new facility would include funds to tear down West Elkton Intermediate. Approximately 66 percent of the base cost of the new facility would be funded by state dollars, according to Bishop, while the remaining portion would be funded by the proposed levy.
“But if we have to do all this on our own dime, that building is going to stand,” Bishop said of the West Elkton facility.
The Preble Shawnee School Board will discuss next steps at its upcoming meeting May 14, according to Bishop. But whatever happens, voters in the school district have a decision to make.
“It’ll definitely be a clearer, more consequential vote the next time we run the income tax, given the situation we find ourselves in,” Bishop said. “In the end, it’s all about who shows up at the polls. If more ‘yes’ people show up than ‘no’ people, that’s what’s going to win the day.”
Reach Anthony Baker at 937-683-4057 or on Facebook @improperenglish