With graduation about a year away, Granville High School juniors Audrey Stankunas and Kate Miller are starting to plan their next steps. Stankunas hopes to major in international relations and either computer science or electrical engineering. Schools that have piqued her interest include Columbia, Princeton and MIT. Miller, who plans to study communication with a focus on environmental studies and research, has looked at schools like Duke, Rice and Vanderbilt.

The two 16-year-olds are grateful for the education they have received here, and they are concerned about the future of Granville schools, so they are dedicating time to campaign for the tax renewal on the May 2 ballot.

Miller and Stankunas met as second graders and have since become close friends. Both lifelong Granville residents, their bond has been forged through shared interests. They both take math and science classes a grade level up, and some of their many extracurricular interests overlap. Stankunas plays tennis, started Model UN at Granville High School and participates in the school’s theater department. Miller is in the marching band, on the academic team and a key player in school theater.

District officials say there will be cuts at schools across the district if voters reject the five-year income-tax renewal.

Already facing the scheduling demands of these activities, plus rigorous academic coursework and college visits, Stankunas and Miller said they want to do what they can to ensure that the economic and academic standing of their school district will be preserved. With the Granville Exempted Village Schools having proposed the renewal of a five-year, 0.75% income tax levy on the May 2 Licking County ballot, the students said that meant joining the group supporting the levy, Achieving Community Excellence in Our Schools (ACES).

ACES is a committee of Granville residents who are encouraging fellow residents to vote in favor of the income tax renewal. In efforts to gather data and understand the potential ramifications that a vote against the renewal could have on the school district, the committee has sought guidance from local education leaders, namely Granville Schools Superintendent Jeff Brown and Board of Education President Thomas Miller.

Kate Miller, who is the daughter of Thomas Miller, joined the committee in large part because she worries that extracurricular activities are “kind of on the line” if the income tax levy is not renewed. She wants her younger brother, Jack, currently a freshman at Granville High School, to have the same opportunities for exploration as she had.

“I think so many kids find their passion – myself included – in the arts, and in the music, and in things like that, that are not cookie-cutter classroom style things,” Kate Miller said. “There is something about being in high school at Granville that gives you so much freedom to really express yourself, and I think that expression would be so numbed without the funding to support it.”

 The two students are concerned about misleading information being distributed by opponents of the levy. The concern was echoed by other levy advocates, who noted that a small group calling itself the “Granville Common Sense Coalition” mailed to residents of the district a flyer that contained false information. Even the coalition acknowledged on its website that some information in its flyer is incorrect.

 “If it’s just misinformation and confusion that leads us to lose some of these things that are so important to me, I think that would be really hard to see,” Kate Miller said.

Kate Miller serves as a utility player for the levy campaign. She helps monitor social media channels, puts up signs and talks to community members about the vote.

She also helped Stankunas get involved with the campaign to support the tax renewal. Stankunas signed up to be the committee’s social media director at the first meeting she attended. Her interest in the upcoming vote is fueled by her appreciation for the power of community government.

“I believe that local elections are the root of our democracy, because grassroots movements are the way that we can make change,” Stankunas said. “There’s a lot of people who only care about elections when it comes to the federal government, which is absurd, because there’s not a lot that the federal government can do to put change in your community.”

The Reporting Project spoke with school district officials and Granville Board of Education personnel, ACES co-chairmen Jeff Houser and Erik Yassenoff, and other community members for facts about the proposed income tax renewal and to understand concerns raised by some residents.

Members of the Granville Common Sense Coalition did not respond to interview requests made by The Reporting Project via email on Thursday, April 13, and Friday, April 14. Joe Curry, who is listed as the coalition president, did not return an interview request made by The Reporting Project via voicemail on Monday, April 17, or an interview request made by text message on the same date. What appeared to be an auto-reply text message sent by Curry’s phone confirmed that he received the news organization’s initial phone call.

The proposed renewal

In November 2018, voters approved a five-year, 0.75% income tax levy for Granville school district residents. That levy will expire at the end of the 2023 calendar year unless it is renewed. The school district asked voters in November 2022 to approve renewing the tax and making it permanent.

The coalition fought that levy, largely on the grounds that its members did not want it to be a permanent tax, but also by issuing a long list of false claims against the district and about local elections.

The income tax generates 21% of the school district’s total operating revenue, according to the district. District officials said the renewal would allow the district to keep its total operating revenue stable. More than three fourths (79%) of the school’s operating expenses go toward staff salaries and benefits.

 The school district proposed an income tax levy as opposed to a property tax levy for three primary reasons, said Granville Board of Education representatives. One reason is that increased property taxes would discourage commercial business owners from moving their businesses into Granville. Another reason is that, due to Ohio House Bill HB290, property tax rates are adjusted down as property values increase, meaning that if a property tax levy was implemented, rather than an income tax levy, the school district would not gain additional revenue as either inflation or property values increase.

“We can’t capture the benefit of that economic growth and development through a property tax, but we can through an income tax,” said campaign co-chairman Erik Yassenoff. “As mid- to high-level executives with Intel move to the area, buy houses, put their kids in the school district, we will capture their income.”

The third reason the district proposed an income tax renewal is that, according to Thomas Miller, an income tax is more likely than a property tax to ease the financial burden on retirees. This is because retirees are less likely to be actively generating high incomes than Granville residents who are currently working, but not necessarily any more likely than other residents to have low property values, Thomas Miller said.

In May 2018, the district proposed and voters rejected a 1.25% earned-income tax. Pensions, interest, dividends and capital gains would have been exempted from taxation if the levy had passed. The proposed tax would have generated the same amount of revenue as the 0.75% tax on all income that voters approved in November of that year..

What’s at stake

Superintendent Jeff Brown recently said the district is projecting a $2 million deficit without the income tax renewal, and that the deficit could be bigger if the legislature approves changes in state funding to school districts. If the levy is renewed, Granville residents will continue to pay the same income tax that they have been paying for the past five years, and the district would retain a major source of its operating revenue.

 If the levy renewal does not pass, Granville residents will no longer pay the 0.75% income tax starting in 2024, and Brown said the district would need to make significant budget cuts to account for the loss of revenue.

In the face of uncertainty about finances, the district is holding off on plans to hire three new teachers to address enrollment growth in the district. It also is holding off hiring replacements for retiring and resigning teachers and faculty members until it knows that it will have the money to pay their salaries.

“There will be positions that we will not fill going into the 2023-2024 school year if the levy does not pass,” Brown said.

 Though no concrete plans have been implemented, the Granville Board of Education has discussed the potential of cutting capital improvements like paving, roofing and flooring if the levy is not renewed, said district treasurer Brittany Treolo.

Some residents fear that without the tax renewal, the school district will eventually need to consider more drastic cuts.

“What I fear is that if the community is not willing to pass this income tax, they’ll have to cut faculty and staff and reduce programming,” said Granville resident Joe Leithauser. “I’ve looked at the books – I’ve done the math, I’m a math guy – they need the money if we want to have the same level of programming.”

Teachers are very concerned about the future of the district, said students Stankunas and Kate Miller.

“When I’ve spoken to them outside of school, they are very nervous about the ramifications of (tax renewal) not passing,” Stankunas said.

Kate Miller said teachers of core curriculum subjects tend to be more nervous about class size increases, which Brown has said could happen, whereas faculty members who teach non-core curriculum subjects have voiced concerns about job cuts.

“If this levy doesn’t pass, class sizes increase,” Thomas Miller said.

In a written statement, Granville Area Chamber of Commerce executive director Steve Matheny emphasized the role that strong schools play in attracting people to the village.

“Here in Granville, we are most fortunate to have a school district with an outstanding standing and reputation – indeed, our schools are ranked among the best in the state,” Matheney said. “This is a tremendous asset and benefit to our community, which is vital to preserve.  Businesses, workers, and homebuyers alike are drawn to communities with excellent schools.  Failure to maintain and preserve the reputation of our schools represents risks for the community.” 

More misinformation

As was the case in the runup to the November 2022 general election, the Granville Common Sense Coalition is spreading misinformation about the tax renewal on the May 2 ballot. Specifically, the group sent flyers containing statements with factually incorrect information to Granville residents.

The coalition has since retracted some of its initial claims, noting on its website: “We recently mailed a postcard to Granville voters listing our main concerns about this levy. We unfortunately made two errors in our numbers.”

ACES co-chairman Jeff Houser said that the website correction does not ensure that voters who received the flyer will be informed of the fact that it contained false information.

“It can’t really unring the bell of what they’ve sent people in the mail, so it’s disappointing in that sense that those untrue statements are out there, and the correction isn’t in the same medium as the initial bad information,” Houser said.

Additionally, the coalition recently funded printing of an article filled with unverified information about the tax renewal. The article, distributed to seniors at the Middleton Senior Living residences in its weekly newsletter, included a fine-print footnote that says, “This information was submitted by a concerned senior citizen who lives in the district. The GCSC is working to verify the data included and encourages you to do your own research as well.”

At least two claims still being made on the coalition’s website are false or misleading for lack of context. The site states: “During Coronavirus years, other school districts used funding to thank and reward staff members. Granville leadership gave bonuses to administration and NOT to teachers, custodians, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, and secretaries.”

Treolo, the school district treasurer, said, “The district did not use any COVID-related funding to give bonuses to administration.”

The coalition website also states: “During the November 2022 ballot cycle, there was an $18,000,000 cash balance.”

That number reflects property taxes collected in September. A cash balance is not a cash surplus. The cash balance is money that the school district holds to cover expenses during the months between biannual property tax collections. District officials confirmed that the district maintains a 172-day cash balance. In comparison, Worthington Schools keeps a cash balance that could cover 278 days of projected expenses.

For more information

Granville Exempted Village Schools superintendent Jeff Brown can be reached at 740-587-8110 and jrbrown@granvilleschools.org. Granville Board of Education president Thomas Miller can be reached at 740-720-0081 or tmiller@granvilleschools.org.

How to vote
For more information about the May 2 special election, including polling locations, early voting hours and absentee ballot instruction, visit the Licking County Board of Elections website: https://www.boe.ohio.gov/licking/.

Jack Nimesheim writes for TheReportingProject.org, the nonprofit news organization of Denison University’s Journalism program, which is funded in part by the Mellon Foundation.