Engaging the Public in Taxing Situations


Woody Hayes, legendary football coach at Ohio State University, once related that he found passing the football difficult to do because three things can happen when a team passes, and two of them are bad.

In many respects, the East Muskingum, Ohio, school district, where I formerly served as superintendent, faced a similar situation, financial in nature, in 1993 and again in 1998 with my successor. Both times, several solutions existed, but the options tended to be more negative than positive. However, both crises were resolved positively, even though different superintendents were providing the leadership.

The common ingredients were these: public engagement, a board of education willing to share its power and a carefully executed tax campaign.

Complicating Factors
The fiscal crisis in 1993 was complicated by our need for not only operating dollars but also facility monies to enlarge our crowded high school. For several years, our K-8 enrollment had grown steadily, and we accommodated the burgeoning enrollment through substantial renovation and additions to the buildings. However, the increased student body was scheduled to enter high school in fall 1994, and the building's space was woefully inadequate.

As enrollment grew, so accordingly did personnel needs, instructional supplies and equipment needs. The operating requirements also were affected by the recommendations of the long-range planning team to make us a better school system. Of course, many recommendations carried financial implications.

The immediate questions facing our board members as they considered the need for increased operating and facility dollars were: (1) What are we going to do? and (2) How are we going to do it? A tax referendum was a distinct possibility. Because our board believed in engaging the community in important deliberations, board members opted to give stakeholders the opportunity to understand the situation and offer suggestions before making a decision.

With that philosophy in mind, the administrative team and I prepared for a meeting of nearly 160 people from a cross-section of the community to help the board decide how to resolve the financial crisis. Invited were officers of PTAs, academic boosters and athletic sponsors; certified and classified representatives from each building; members of board-appointed advisory groups; former planning team members; former board members; and opinion leaders whose influence would be needed.

Informed Deliberations
On a snowy Saturday morning in January 1993, nearly 120 of the invitees crowded into our high school's cramped cafeteria to illustrate how difficult it was for a similar number of students to eat at lunchtime. As they registered for the meeting, participants browsed through a visual history of the district since its 1958 consolidation. Old newspaper articles, fliers about past successes and photographs were displayed prominently to remind people of past highlights and the pride felt by so many in the district.

A similar community meeting in 1998 was held in the new cafeteria--a tangible reminder of the successful referendum five years earlier.

The agenda on both occasions consisted of a time for information sharing and a time for group decision making. After a welcome by the board president, the superintendent's 30-minute presentation laid the groundwork for understanding. The information was presented in a simple question-and-answer format using charts and graphs. Four basic questions were addressed: Where do we get our money? How do we spend our money? How do our resources and expenses compare to other districts? Why do we need more funds?

An architect shared ideas about how the high school might be expanded and projected potential costs. In addition, a school finance expert answered questions on the available tax options.

Participants then explored the options: Should the board consider an operating levy that spring followed by a building levy in the fall? Should the two issues be reversed? Or should the board ask the public to consider them simultaneously? Another option was to present a single tax issue large enough to cover operating and facility needs.

A Surprising Consensus
Compounding the facility issue was whether the tax referendum ought to be a bond issue, which would lower the tax rate but greatly increase the amount of interest that taxpayers would pay over 23 years? Perhaps it should be a 5-year permanent improvement levy that would reduce interest charges but increase the tax rate people would be asked to approve.

During the discussions in 1998, community members considered the possible renewal of both 1993 issues, the expiration of both, the renewal of only one or an increase of one or both issues. The 1998 situation was complicated by a state ballot issue for a 1 percent sales tax issue of which 50 percent would go to schools.

In both 1993 and 1998, participants divided into 15 groups of from 6 to 8 people to consider the options, which included cost estimates, for an hour. The superintendent, a school finance expert and the architect answered each group's questions. When the larger group reconvened, a consensus quickly emerged: The board should place an operating issue on the spring ballot along with a permanent improvement levy to enlarge the high school facility. The rationale was that the issues were distinct and needed to be considered separately but at the same time. They wanted to seek approval in the spring so that if one did not pass, it could appear on the fall ballot.

Furthermore, the community stakeholders supported the idea of a permanent improvement levy because it greatly reduced the taxpayer burden over time by reducing total interest payments.

In 1998, the rationale was that renewal of both issues without an increase supported the school board's ability to at least maintain the current operational level. They believed a passage of the state issue would provide icing on the cake but feared the failure of both state and local issues would be a disaster. With a belief that we could affect only the two local issues, they encouraged the renewal of both and an attitude of "taking care of our own."

The most amazing thing on both occasions was that group after group offered a similar solution. No one anticipated such unanimity. After the board passed resolutions to place the issues on the May 1993 and May 1998 primary ballots, many of those who had helped the board arrive at its decision served as campaign leaders to support passage of the two levies. On both occasions, the tax referendums passed by almost identical margins of 60 to 40 percent.

Power Sharing
Many lessons may be learned from such experiences. First is the power of public engagement and a belief that when community residents are given timely and accurate information, they will thoughtfully consider the data and offer appropriate solutions that reflect the thinking of the general public.

That is exactly what happened on both occasions in East Muskingum and the major reason why the issues passed on the first attempts. Following each January meeting, 100 or more people left the high school knowing they had been part of a major decision of their school district. They also felt empowered to offer solutions to something that had not yet been decided by the board.

The superintendent's role in both cases was to enable the board to demonstrate leadership and strengthen its power by sharing it with others. The board demonstrated that power is not a consumable supply that decreases with use, but rather it increases when shared with others. Finally, the fact that the same approach to public engagement and a well-organized campaign strategy worked equally well two times validated the process.

Jim Mahoney is superintendent or Muskingum Valley Education Service Center, 205 N. 7th St., Zanesville, OH 43701. E-mail: He acknowledges the assistance of his successor as East Muskingum superintendent, Barbara Hansen, in preparing this article.