OEPI annually tracks Ohio school levy activity examining the number and types of issues on the ballot as well as the success rate. This article updates previous analysis by providing information on 2020 Ohio school levies.
Sources for School Levy Data
The Ohio Department of Education (ODE) tabulated school levy results each election from November 1983 through November 2009. Beginning in 2002, these results were posted on the ODE website. Unfortunately, ODE ceased tabulating levy data as a result of budget cuts after the November 2009 election.
Fortunately, the Ohio Secretary of State (SOS) website began posting local issues results in May 2003. From May 2003 through November 2012 these results were posted in PDF files which were organized by county and included all local issues. School levies, other local government levies, and non-levy local issues were all included in the SOS data. The upside of the SOS data was that the full ballot language was included, allowing detailed analysis of local issues. The downside of the SOS data was that it was not easily searchable or sortable and was therefore difficult to use.
Beginning with the May 2013 election, the Secretary of State began posting local tax levy data and results for schools and other local governments in an Excel spreadsheet. The Excel spreadsheet format allows for easy sorting of local issues so that school levies, library levies, township levies and other local levies can all be examined and analyzed with ease. The May 2013 spreadsheet contained relatively limited information, focusing mainly on the type and purpose of the levy along with the political subdivision that placed the levy on the ballot. Beginning with the August 2013 election, however, the Secretary of State data now includes the property tax millage rate or income tax percentage rate, the dollar amount of the levy (when pertinent), whether the levy is new, a renewal or replacement, and the duration of the levy. The Secretary of State “Local Issues Report” provides the results of all local ballot initiatives; however, because the report is in Excel it is easy to sort by “Subdivision Type” in order to isolate the school levies. The Secretary of State election results can be accessed from the SOS website by selecting the year in question at:
The one drawback of the Secretary of State school levy database is that it does not distinguish between the two types of school district income taxes (the “traditional” income tax or the newer “Earned Income only” option). For this reason, and also because the November 2020 levy results have not yet been posted to the SOS website, it was necessary to use additional sources of data for this analysis. The Ohio School Boards Association tabulates school levy data each election, as does Kevin Miller from the Buckeye Association of School Administrators. Consequently, information from these sources was used to augment the data available from the Secretary of State. The November 2020 school levy results included here (which should be considered preliminary until certified by the Secretary of State) were provided by BASA, with the overall levy passage rate corroborated by OSBA data.
2020 School Levy Analysis
Table 1 below provides an overview of 2020 Ohio school levy activity. The levy totals include all levies for school purposes on the ballot in 2020. These include operating and capital (bond and permanent improvement) levies, and both property tax and school district income tax levies. Note that HB 64 (the FY16-17 biennial budget bill) eliminated the February special election beginning in 2016, and in a Presidential election year the May primary election is typically held in March.
Table 1: 2020 School Operating & Capital Levy Results, by Election
|Election||Total # of Issues||# Passing||# Failing||2020 % Passing||2019 % Passing||2018 % Passing|
Table 1 shows that in 2020 there were 217 total school levies on the ballot, of which 150 (69.1%) passed. In 2019 there were 260 levies on the ballot of which 195 (75.0%) were approved by voters, and in 2018 there were 270 levies on the ballot of which 185 (68.5%) passed. Table 1 also shows that the overwhelming majority of 2020 school levies were placed on the ballot in the primary and general elections.
Table 1 also shows that the overall success rate of school levies in 2020 was slightly lower than in 2019 and almost exactly the same as in 2018. To provide additional perspective on this issue, Table 2 provides a summary of the number and passage rate of school operating and capital levies on the ballot in Ohio from 2007 through 2020.
Table 2 below provides a summary of school operating and capital levies placed on the ballot from 2007 through 2020. The data in Table 2 show that the annual number of school levies on the ballot in Ohio has declined significantly since 2010. In fact, the number of school levies placed on the ballot in the last nine years (2012 through 2020) are the nine lowest annual totals since 1984 (the earliest year for which I have complete data), with the 217 levies on the ballot this year tied with 2015 for the lowest total in the past 37 years.
The data in Table 2 also show that the number of operating levies was relatively constant at around 250 per year from 2007 through 2009. Levies increased to 317 in 2010, and then decreased each year from 2010 through 2017 before increasing sharply in 2018 and 2019 and then decreasing again in 2020. The 157, 149, 136 and 135 operating levies placed on the ballot in 2020, 2015, 2016 and 2017 represent the four lowest numbers of school operating levies placed on the ballot in Ohio since HB 920 was passed in 1976.
Table 2: School Operating and Capital Levies from 2007-2020
|Year||Total # of Issues||% Passing||# Operating Issues||% Passing||# Capital Issues||% Passing|
Table 2 also shows that the number of capital issues has fluctuated over the past 14 years. Capital issues fell steadily from 2008 through 2011, remained stable from 2011 to 2012, increased slightly in 2013 and 2014, and then declined by nearly 40% in 2015 before rebounding in 2016 from which point there have been slight declines each of the last four years. The 60 Capital levies on the ballot in 2020 are the lowest number since 1984, and the last 11 years (2010-2020) are the eleven lowest totals for capital levies on the ballot in the past 37 years.
While the decline in capital levies in recent years may be explained by a decrease in the number of Ohio School Facility Commission (OSFC) levies, the steady decline in operating levies from 2011 to 2017 was surprising in light of the reductions in tangible personal property tax replacement payments to Ohio school districts in the FY12-13 biennial budget and again in the FY16-17 biennial budget. The phase-down of TPP replacement payments was later placed in permanent law in SB 208 in October 2015. The increase in the number of operating levies on the ballot in both 2018 (186) and 2019 (179) as compared to 2017 (135 levies) was over 30% in each year. The decrease in operating levy activity in 2020 is likely the result of reluctance by school boards to place local tax issues before voters during the Coronavirus pandemic.
In addition to showing the number of operating and capital levies, Table 2 also shows the passage rates of each type of levy. The data in Table 2 show that the passage rate for capital levies was fairly consistent from 2008 through 2014 (averaging 55.5%) and then increased markedly in 2015 as the number of capital issues on the ballot decreased. As the number of capital levies rebounded in 2016 and 2017, the percentage passing decreased, before increasing again to over 70% in both 2018 and 2019. In 2020 both the number of capital levies and the passage rate decreased. The average passage rate of capital levies from 2015 through 2020 is 68.3%. Closer examination of the mixture of capital levies among bond issues, permanent improvement and facilities maintenance levies, and bond/PI combination issues may yield additional insight as to why both the number of capital levies placed before voters and the passage rate have vacillated in recent years.
Table 2 also shows that the passage rate of school operating levies has followed a different path than that of capital levies. From 1994 through 2020 the average passing rate of school operating levies was 58.2%. However, while the operating levy passage rate in each of past seven years (2014-2020) has fluctuated up and down, the passage rate in every year has been far above the historical rate, averaging 75.5%.
The operating levy passage rate increased each year from 2011 to 2015 at the same time as the number of levies on the ballot decreased. In 2016 the number of operating levies fell slightly as did the percentage of operating levies that passed, while the 2017 operating levy results are almost exactly the same as those in 2016. In 2018 the large increase in the number of operating levies on the ballot was accompanied by a decrease in the percentage of levies that were approved by voters. However, in 2019 the number of levies is similar to that of 2018 but the passage percentage of 75.0% is the second highest in the last 13 years, behind only 2015. In 2020, as was the case with capital levies, both the number of capital levies and the passage rate decreased.
While it might be tempting to conclude from this pattern that levies are more likely to pass when there are fewer of them on the ballot, this is not in fact the driving force behind the increase in passage rate of operating levies. It also might be tempting to conclude that the remarkably high 88.6% passage rate for school operating levies in 2015 and the roughly 70% passing percentages from 2016 through 2020 are an indication of a sudden upsurge in community support for local school districts across the state over the past several years. However, this is not in fact the case. Table 3 shows that the increase in passage rates of Ohio school operating levies in recent years is due almost entirely to a much simpler reason – an unprecedented decrease in the share of new school levies on the ballot.
Table 3 takes a closer look at operating levy activity from 2007 through 2020 by separating new levies (i.e. those that impose additional millage on local voters) from renewal and replacement levies. Renewal levies ask for re-approval of millage already in place, while replacement levies ask for restoration of a levy already in place to its original voted millage (there have been very few replacement levies on the ballot in recent years, however). Long-term analysis of Ohio school levies has suggested that new levies tend to pass at a roughly 37% rate, while renewal and replacement levies are approved roughly 86% of the time.
The data in Table 3 show that school operating levy patterns in 2015, 2016, and 2017 deviate quite sharply from long-term trends. Over the 20-year period from 1994 to 2013, an average of 166 new school operating levies were placed on the ballot. However, there were only 26 new school operating levies on the ballot in 2015, 33 new levies in 2016 and 37 new levies in 2017. In 2018 the number of new levies on the ballot more than doubled from 37 in 2017 to 78 in 2018 before dipping slightly to 63 in 2019 and then falling slightly again to 55 in 2020. 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020 are the seven lowest totals of new operating levies since 1976, with each year having less than half the annual number of new operating levies on the ballot than the period from 1994-2013.
Table 3: New and Renewal School Operating Levies from 2007-2020
|Year||Total # of Operating Levies||% Passing||# New Levies||% Passing||# Renew & Replacement Levies||% Passing|
At the same time, the number of renewal and replacement operating levies has also been somewhat lower in eight of the ten years from 2011 through 2020, with 2014 and 2015 being well above historical patterns since the year 2000 where the annual average is 113 renewal and replacement levies. Note, however, that passage rates of renewal and replacement levies has remained fairly constant at roughly 90%, regardless of the number of levies on the ballot.
However, when the pattern of vastly fewer new levies and slightly fewer renewal and replacement levies is looked at together, the mixture of new and renewal levies is shown to have changed significantly in recent years. From 1994 through 1997, 78.2% of the school levies on the ballot were new levies. This percentage has fallen to 61.1% from 1998-2006, 53.9% from 2007 through 2013 and to only 30.5% from 2014 through 2020. Correspondingly, from 1994 through 1997, renewal and replacement levies comprised 21.8% of the school levies on the ballot, increasing to 38.9% from 1998-2006, to 46.1% from 2007-2013, and to 69.5% from 2014-2020. Thus, the much higher than normal overall passage rate for school operating levies since 2014 is partially due to a higher than normal passage rate for new levies, but is primarily driven by the fact that a much higher proportion of school levies on the ballot the past seven years were renewal and replacement levies, which passed roughly 90% of the time.
While the trend is clear, the question remains as to what is driving the sharp and unprecedented decrease in new school operating levies over the past seven years. One possibility is the elimination in HB59 (the FY14-15 biennial budget) of the 10% and 2.5% rollbacks on new and replacement levies beginning with the November 2013 election. The impact of the elimination of the 12.5% in rollbacks on property taxpayers is that the cost of a levy of a given millage amount will now be higher because the taxpayer is paying 100% of the cost of the new tax instead of just 87.5%.
While it is tempting to blame the marked decrease in new levies on the elimination of the rollback, it seems unlikely that the desire to spare property taxpayers a relatively small increase in their tax burdens would trump school districts’ needs for additional revenues. In addition, the HB 59 provision applied to bond and permanent improvement levies as well as to operating levies, and while capital levy totals declined in 2015, they rebounded by 40% in 2016 and were only slightly lower in 2017, 2018, and 2019. Furthermore, school district income tax levies never received the rollback and were therefore unaffected by this policy change; however, the number of new school district income tax proposals has also decreased over the past several years.
Other possible explanations for why districts have reduced the number of new levies placed before voters include recent large increases in agricultural property values, which would make levy passage in many rural districts highly unlikely, and/or a surge in teacher retirements resulting from recent changes to the STRS pension system. Replacement of more expensive older teachers with less expensive younger teachers might be sufficient enough to lower costs in the short run to forestall a levy request. It is also possible that districts are putting larger levies on the ballot and/or extending the length of term of limited levies. Each of these trends would decrease levy frequency. These issues require additional research.
Last year OEPI speculated that the freeze in the state school funding formula at FY19 levels for FY20 and FY21 might prompt Ohio school districts to look to voters for additional local operating revenue in the 2020 calendar year. Furthermore, this pressure was only compounded by the sharp increase in EdChoice vouchers in the FY20 school year and additional increases in EdChoice vouchers in FY21, both of which resulted in larger reductions in net state aid for the districts impacted by the increase. Finally, Ohio school districts experienced a $300 million reduction in state foundation aid in the last two months of the FY20 school year, a reduction which has continued into the FY21 school year. However, despite these developments, the expected increase in local operating levy activity clearly did not materialize in 2020. aIt seems likely that the negative impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on Ohio’s economy may have made local officials reluctant to ask voters for an increase in property or school district income taxes in such uncertain times.