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Why Ohio has more school levies than any other state

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Bowling Green City Schools and 166 other school districts put tax levies on the ballot this election.

There’s a good chance you voted on a local school levy earlier this month. More than a fourth of Ohio districts were on the ballot. And if you didn’t this year, it probably hasn’t been too long since you have: Ohio has more school levies than any other state.

The majority of school districts on the ballot this year asked voters to renew existing taxes. Those were largely successful. But, more than 60 districts asked for new money to help fund everything from operating costs to new school buildings. Only around a third of those requests were approved.

Howard Fleeter, research consultant for the Ohio Education Policy Institute, said the sheer number of levies in the state can be traced back decades to a property tax law known as House Bill 920.

HB 920

Back in the 1970s, inflation was high and property values were skyrocketing across the country. Many states began implementing legislation to slow the increase of property taxes, including Ohio.

Ohio chose to do so by limiting the amount of tax revenue a levy can generate. Essentially, the law freezes the amount of property tax that goes to schools at the time of the levy’s passage. So, when property values increase in Ohio, the dollars going to schools don’t increase with them.

“It has controlled property tax increases, at least on average, very effectively, and it has then put the burden on schools and other local governments to go to the ballot in order to get additional money,” Fleeter said.

Cars sit in the parking lot of Bowling Green High School in northwest Ohio.
Kendall Crawford
The Ohio Newsroom
Bowling Green High School in northwest Ohio won its levy initiative to build a new school building. Only around a third of districts asking for new money passed their levies.

If a property value goes up, HB 920 says that the levy rate, or the percentage of tax on a property, has to come down. It ensures the household pays roughly equal the amount they owed for the levy when it first passed. That makes it hard for districts to keep up with inflation.

“Because their costs are going up, their service needs tend to go up over time, for a variety of reasons, and yet their levies generate essentially a fixed amount of money,” he said.

Impact on elections

It’s hard to gauge the impact of seeing the same school districts on the ballot year after year after year on voters. But, Fleeter said, many school districts frequently on the ballot face “levy fatigue”.

It’s not uncommon to have to try multiple times to get a levy approved. In Bowling Green, a bond issue to construct a new high school building took five times to pass. Fleeter said levies for new taxes are becoming rarer and more difficult to get through.

“Our voters get tired of us being on the ballot all the time, and they don't care about the explanation,” he said.

On the other hand, Fleeter said it can help build accountability for school districts. He said every year, schools have to make their case to voters that they need the funds for a new building or to purchase new textbooks.

“And their voters get to weigh in directly about when they're willing to authorize the district to expand their services or do more.”

Yet, the challenge for many schools is not finding the funding for big capital improvements, like new schools, but simply to keep up with operating costs, like their electricity bill. Those levies can be harder to push over the finish line.

Kendall Crawford is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently worked as a reporter at Iowa Public Radio.