Fifth time’s the charm: how one Ohio school district finally got its levy passed
The lockers of Bowling Green High School gleam with the same polished look as the shiny floors. But, look below the surface – behind the walls decorated with flyers for the next school play and bulletin boards boasting school pride – there are some major problems.
“See all the rust on the doorframe?” said superintendent Ted Haselman, pointing to the entryway by the boiler. “It’s just deteriorating.”
Haselman said the “bones of the building” are in disrepair. Water damage from broken pipes constantly looms over the classrooms.
“A teacher will walk [into the classroom] in the morning and the entire ceiling would be on the floor because the steam pipes leaked,” Haselman said.
So, this year, Bowling Green City School District went to the ballot, alongside 166 other Ohio school districts, to pass a levy. They asked their local community for the funds to construct a new high school building.
For voters in northwest Ohio, receiving their local ballot may have felt like deja vu: the district has been on the ballot for the same issue four times before: in 2017, 2018, 2019, and in 2022.
Each time voters in northwest Ohio rejected it. District leaders hoped the fifth time would be the charm.
Steamy staircases and inconsistent heating and cooling may sound like minor inconveniences, but, according to principal Dan Black, the impact of the 60-year-old buildings’ structural flaws are wide-reaching. It affects not just the students’ classroom outcomes, but the strength of the school itself: the state of the building makes it hard to bring in new families, said Black.
“We walk around and it's 90-some degrees through the halls,” he said. “And I'm trying to convince these families – good families – to come send their kids here. And more times than none, I never hear from that family.”
These structural issues are expensive to fix. The Ohio Facilities Construction Commission estimated it would take $47 million to repair the building and bring it up to code.
The district decided a new building would be the best path forward. While the state was willing to put up 17% of the cost, the rest would have to come from the community. Jerry Rampelt, the founder of Support Ohio Schools Research and Education Foundation, said that sort of ask can be a hard sell for many Ohio towns.
“That is an uphill climb in the best of times, because you’re asking people to vote to pay more taxes,” Rampelt said.
Rampelt said inflation has tightened household budgets. But, it did the same for school districts: when property values increase in Ohio, the dollars going to schools don’t increase with them, because of a circa-1970s property tax law. So districts have to go to the ballot again and again.
Bowling Green has been on the ballot an average of once a year since 2007, according to data from Support Ohio Schools.
"I'm trying to convince these families – good families – to come send their kids here. And more times than none, I never hear from that family again.”Dan Black, principal of Bowling Green High School
Around a fourth of Ohio’s school districts placed a levy on the ballot this year. And while levy renewals had a high success rate, levies for capital improvements only passed around a third of the time.
“It can be a small number of votes, and it can be an issue that is very local,” Rampelt said. “And so it is difficult many times for these places to push it over the goal line, so to speak.”
A place to be proud of
That was the case in Bowling Green for four elections. But this year, they got organized. They raised upwards of $60,000. They did ad campaigns with local celebrities. They mobilized parents, like Rachel Phipps.
“It was just hard to ignore and stay on the sidelines any longer,” said Phipps, a member of BG Families for Schools.
Her two young kids attend private school, partly because the district’s elementary schools are also in need of repair. But, soon enough, they’ll be at Bowling Green High School.
“You want a place you can be proud of … I would hope that for every single student in our school system, and I think that a new high school will really help deliver that,” she said.
After months and months of campaigning, the district overwhelmingly won its levy initiative this year. The new building will be completed in 2027. Phipps and her fellow organizers can’t rest until then. Next year there’s another levy on the ballot, for the district to keep up with operating costs.
“After election day, we’re back at it,” she said. “We know the elementary schools need some love and are just ready for our marching orders on how we can assist.”
Now that they’ve learned what it takes, Phipps said she hopes the next one won’t take five times to get approved.