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 2019 Ohio school levies.
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, renewal or replacement, and the duration of the levy. The Secretary of State “Local Issues Report” provides the results of the local ballot initiatives for all of Ohio’s political subdivisions. 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 base or the newer “Earned Income only” option). For this reason, it was necessary to use additional sources of data for this analysis. The Buckeye Association of School Administrators contacts each county board of election and determines which school district income tax levies are earned income and which are traditional. This information was used to augment the data available from the Secretary of State. The November 2019 school levy results included here are the final results as certified by the Secretary of State.
2019 School Levy Analysis
Table 1 below provides an overview of 2019 Ohio school levy activity. The levy totals include all levies for school purposes on the ballot in 2019. 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: 2019 School Operating & Capital Levy Results, by Election
|Election||Total # of Issues||# Passing||# Failing||2019 % Passing||2018 % Passing||2017 % Passing|
Table 1 shows that in 2019 there were 260 total school levies on the ballot, of which 195 (75.0%) passed. In 2018, there were 270 levies on the ballot of which 185 (68.5%) approved by voters, and in 2017 there were 223 levies on the ballot of which 160 (71.7%) passed. Table 1 also shows that the overwhelming majority of 2019 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 2019 was slightly higher than in 2017 and 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 2019.
Table 2: School Operating and Capital Levies from 2007-2019
|Year||Total # of Issues||% Passing||# Operating Issues||% Passing||# Capital Issues||% Passing|
The data in Table 2 show that the number of operating levies was relatively constant at around 250 per year from 2007 through 2009, increased to 317 in 2010, and then decreased each year from 2010 through 2017 before increasing sharply in 2018 and remaining at roughly the same level in 2019. The number of capital issues has fluctuated over time, falling steadily from 2008 through 2011, remaining stable from 2011 to 2012, increasing slightly in 2013 and 2014 and then declining by nearly 40% in 2015 before rebounding in 2016 from which point there have been slight declines each of the last three 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) has been over 30% in each year.
Table 2 also shows that the passage rate for capital levies was fairly consistent from 2008 through 2014 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 roughly 70% in both 2018 and 2019. 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 the number of capital levies placed before voters has vacillated in recent years.
Furthermore, Table 2 also shows that the passage rate of school operating levies 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, with 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.
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 2019 are an indication of a sudden upsurge in community support for local school 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 more fundamental reason – an unprecedented decrease in the share of new vs. replacement levies on the ballot.
Table 3 takes a closer look at operating levy activity from 2007 through 2019 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 it original voted millage. 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.
Table 3: New and Renewal School Operating Levies from 2007-2019
|Year||Total # of Operating Levies||% Passing||# New Levies||% Passing||# Renew & Replacement Levies||% Passing||% of New Levies on the Ballot|
The data in Table 3 shows that school operating levy patterns in 2015 and beyond deviate quite sharply from long-term trends. The 6 most important numbers in Table 3 are the double digit new operating levy totals shown each year from 2014 through 2019. 2015, 2016 and 2017 were the three years with by far the fewest number of new school operating levies placed on the ballot in the past 20 years while 2014 (69), 2018 (78) and 2019 (63) are the next 3 lowest years with only the 82 new levies on the ballot in 2001 even close to these figures. By comparison, in the 20-year period from 1994 to 2013 an average 166 new school operating levies were placed on the ballot. This figure is more than double the highest number of new school levies placed on the ballot in the past six years
Furthermore, in the mid-1990s, roughly 82% of all operating levies on the ballot were new levies. By the mid 2000s, the percentage of new levies had fallen to roughly 2/3rd. From 2007 to 2013, the share of new levies on the ballot fell again to 54.5%. In 2014, the percentage of new levies fell below 33%, in 2015 it fell below 20%, in 2016 it was 24%, and in 2017 it was 27%. After a brief increase to 41% in 2018, in 2019 only 35% of the 179 school levies placed on the ballot were new levies.
Thus the much higher than normal overall passage rate for school operating levies from 2014 through 2019 is due not as much to a higher than normal passage rate for new levies, but rather by the fact that a much higher proportion of school levies on the ballot those six years were renewal levies which passed more than 90% of the time as opposed to new levies which passed only 40% 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 six 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 a property tax payer 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 district’s 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 through 2019. In addition, the school district income tax levies never received the rollback and were, therefore, unaffected by this policy change. However, school district income tax proposals have also been down over the past several years.
Other explanations for why districts have reduced the number of new levies placed before voters could 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 to lower costs in the short run enough to forestall a levy request. These issues require additional research.
Considering that the FY20-21 biennial budget enacted in June essentially froze the state school funding formula at FY19 levels, it seems reasonable to conclude that Ohio school districts will again face pressure to look for additional revenue from local sources. Furthermore, this pressure is only compounded by the sharp increase in EdChoice vouchers in the FY20 school year which has resulted in reductions in net state aid for the districts impacted by the increase. For both of these reasons, it would not be surprising if an increase in new school levies appearing on local ballots occurs in 2020. The March primary election (which has been delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic) has 99 school levies on the ballot, a figure which includes the Lake County School Financing District renewal levy. There are no JVSD levies on the March ballot. 24 of the 99 levies are capital levy issues (bond issues, permanent improvement levies and combination bond/PI/maintenance levies) and 75 levies are operating levies.