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Yellow Springs High School/McKinney Middle School as it appeared in late September this year. (Drone photo by Bryan Cady)

Looking ahead after school levy loss

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At a 61%-39% spread, Yellow Springs district voters last week rejected a combined 6.5-mill, 37-year property tax and a 0.5% income tax increase with no end date to build a $35.6 million K–12 school at the location of the current middle/high school on East Enon Road.

According to unofficial results from the Greene County Board of Elections, the vote count Tuesday, Nov. 2, was 1,258 ballots against and 804 in favor of the measure, which included partnering with the Ohio Facilities Construction Commission for a promised 26% reimbursement from the state — more than $9 million — for the completed project.

If approved, the income tax would have cost about $315 annually for anyone making the median Yellow Springs income of about $63,000, and the property levy would have come to an additional $227.50 per year for each $100,000 in appraised value of owned property, according to estimates by the Greene County Auditor’s Office.

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In the same election, the results of the race for three open school board seats saw voters cast the most ballots for the two candidates — Judith Hempfling and Amy Magnus — whose platforms called for finding a less costly solution for addressing the district’s school building needs.

While differing on the approach to meeting those needs, all school board candidates agreed that the facilities have critical issues that need addressing.

With a clear majority of voters saying “no” to the district’s proposed plan — the second facilities measure in three years to be rejected at the ballot box — and three new board members joining the five-person school board in January, how does the district envision moving forward?
Superintendent Terri Holden, who was in Columbus at the beginning of this week for the Ohio School Board Association’s annual Capitol Conference, responded to emailed questions from the News about her plans.

“As of right now, there are no actions I anticipate taking,” she wrote. “The logical step is to engage the new board about the condition of the district’s facilities.”

She wrote that she hadn’t yet spoken with the current school board as a whole, noting that the next regular school board meeting is Thursday, Nov. 11.

Asked whether a similar levy measure might be placed on the spring ballot, in order to qualify for the 26% state reimbursement (an OFCC commitment good for a year before the district would have to reapply to the agency) Holden referred to her previous answer about engaging with the new board before making any further moves.

Given that the makeup of the board in January will have a majority of three members who favored the levy — continuing members Sylvia Ellison and TJ Turner and newly elected Dorothée Bouquet — the trio technically could override newcomers Hempfling and Magnus concerning a facilities plan. Asked whether she felt a unanimous board was necessary in moving forward with any plan, Holden wrote that she thinks unity is important.

“While a simple majority is generally what is needed for most board votes, a unified board sends a message to the community that we are all on the same page in supporting student success and achievement,” she wrote.

Turner, who responded to a News inquiry via text while in Alaska this week, wrote that he is ready to work with the new board members to come up with a favorable solution for the community.

“As you might imagine, I am disappointed by the results of the election,” he wrote of the levy defeat. “I am however looking forward to finally seeing details of the plan that two of the newly elected school board members [Hempfling and Magnus] presented as a path forward for the district facilities. The devil is in the details, and as of yet I have not seen those details to know if it is a viable method to fix the $25 million in immediate needs that our facilities face. I fear that we have voted down the most economical solution and walked away from state funding, both of which will negatively impact affordability in the district. Time will tell.”

In a phone call this week, Amy Magnus said she’s excited about digging into her new position as a school board member when her term begins in January.

“People already are reaching out with information they think will be helpful,” Magnus said, stressing her belief that community conversations and collaborations will support moving forward with a phased effort to “refresh our buildings rather than start from scratch.”

The proposed levy asked for too much amid challenging times made harder by the continuing pandemic, she said. “I think the community came to a reasonable decision.”

An engineer who is retired from the U.S. Air Force, Magnus said she is optimistic about the future of the village and the schools.

“We see the [development] signs erected around town that show change is coming in the form of new businesses and new jobs,” she said. I believe we have a lot of reasons to hope that the village’s financial status will get better and the schools financial situation will be lifted with it.”

In a separate phone call this week, Judith Hempfling said she wants to stress that while she opposed the levy, she supports the schools.

“It’s important that teachers, students, parents, that everybody recognizes that we greatly value our public schools.”

Hempfling said she believes several factors, in addition to costs, influenced the vote against the levy, specifically a contingent of people who want to keep Mills Lawn Elementary School in the center of town as well as environmentalists who call for preservation of structures and undeveloped property. She feels those voices should be included in future planning.

A past president of Village Council, ­Hemplfing said she has “some ideas about having an interface in the village, with people who want this kind of plan to succeed.”

For incoming board member Dorothée Bouquet, who teaches history online with Purdue University, the levy defeat “put the spotlight on affordability” in the village.

While the schools “have limited impact” on the affordability of a community, Bouquet said she thinks district leaders will need to engage in collaboration with other village entities, including Village Council, “to develop a comprehensive plan” for addressing affordability. The Yellow Springs Development Corporation could be a possible facilitator for such conversations, or another as-yet-unidentified vehicle could be put in place, she said.

In listening to opponents to the most recent levy proposal, she said she’s heard calls for more study of the facilities issue, and she worries about the continuing costs “when we’ve already had studies done.”

While she said she “grieves” the loss of the levy, she is listening to those who voted “no.”

“I feel that the community is giving us a task. It’s not an easy one, but I’m definitely going to work on it.”

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