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School leaders oppose ban on special elections

Two local state legislators want to ban special elections like the one held last week in Clark and Champaign counties to help save local taxpayer dollars.

However, local school leaders and state lobbyists oppose the legislation and believe the repeal would take flexibility away from districts looking to pass a levy.

Rep. John Adams, R-Sidney, introduced House Bill 240 last week, which would eliminate special elections held in February and August. Rep. Bob Hackett, R-London, also is co-sponsoring the bill.

The repeal would mean local governments and school boards would lose the ability to put tax questions before voters in February and August.

Local governments foot the bill for the entire election. Since February 2010, three special elections have costs taxpayers in Clark County approximately $85,000.

Officials from the Champaign County Board of Elections said there have been four special elections in Champaign County since Aug. 2008. The most expensive was a Graham Local Schools issue, which cost voters about $9,800. The other elections available, however, involved only a handful of voters from the Northeastern and Northwestern School Districts, which are located in Clark County. Those races typically cost Champaign County voters between $110 and $150.

Adams, who represents all of Champaign County, said the process is too expensive for taxpayers. He believes local governments, especially school districts, should plan far enough in advance to schedule levy proposal for general election months.

Some voters, Adams said, forget an election is happening because they’re not “wired” for elections in February or August.

“This really isn’t necessary. It’s not,” Adams said. “We all plan. They give you five-year projected budgets at every school that have to be turned into the Dept. of Education. They can put their levies on when everybody knows they can go to vote.”

Ohio School Board Association lobbyist Jay Smith said the organization has fought similar legislation in the past and will continue to fight it this time around.

“You’re removing one of those tools school districts utilize,” Smith said.

The special elections also creates extra work for election boards coming off of general elections.

“They have difficulty getting volunteers to staff them,” Adams said.

Hackett, who represents northeast Clark County and all of Madison County, said special elections create “fairly severe additional costs” to the local governments. He believes the normal election process is suitable.

Hackett said he supports the local levy system because the money stays local, but believes it’s an issue of costs being much greater to the local governments than the general election months of May and November.

Voter turnout is often low at special elections around the state, although approximately 33 percent of voters turned out in Clark County last week.

Just six of the 19 school levies asking for new or renewal money passed last week in Ohio, according to an OSBA report based on unofficial results. Of those six, just three districts passed new money levies, including West Liberty-Salem.

The state budget approved earlier this summer will also have an effect on school levies in the future. The budget eliminated a subsidy which allowed the state to pick up 12.5 percent of the cost of new or replacement levies. The language will take effect beginning in November.

At Tecumseh Local School, the district has sought to pass levies during special elections three times since 2004, said Brad Martin, the district’s superintendent.

The biggest impact to eliminating special elections is that it gives districts and voters one less chance to decide issues that affect residents. For example, if cuts are expected at a district in the fall, passing a levy in August might mean some of those reductions don’t need to be made.

In general, Martin said it’s good to give voters a chance to be heard.

“I think it’s always important in general for people to get out there and vote,” Martin said.

Northeastern voters rejected a 1 percent income tax in the district last week, but Superintendent Lou Kramer said it was important to let voters decide on the issue. The district did not seek an income tax request in May, but will be on the ballot again in November.

“In general, I think having an opportunity to have your community vote to decide an issue is important,” Kramer said.

Voters in the Clark-Shawnee Local School District also rejected a proposed 10-year, 7.59-mill levy request this month.

If the proposed legislation is approved, it would mean districts can only seek revenue from voters twice a year. The Clark-Shawnee district has rarely sought new revenue in special elections in the past few years, said Thomas Faulkner, the district’s treasurer.

But he said it’s important for districts to have flexibility when seeking additional revenue. For example, state funding cuts can sometimes occur mid-year, leaving local districts little time to make up for the loss in revenue.

Once a levy is approved, it takes several months before the district begins to see any of that revenue, so having the special elections gives districts more leeway to avoid cuts in some cases, Faulkner said.

Clark County Board of Elections director Matthew Tlachac said the special elections add to workload, but the board’s duty is to run elections for the people.

“I can see the advantages and disadvantages of both sides,” Tlachac said.

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