Lakota starts prepping for big district changes following levy success

WEST CHESTER, Ohio -- Like many others in this Northern Cincinnati suburb, Liberty Township resident Angela Grimm watched with intensity Tuesday night as votes from the Lakota School District tax levy trickled in. 

It was the fourth time she’d watch this happen since 2005, and it might have been her last.

“My husband had said to me that we would put our house on the market tomorrow,” she said.

But Wednesday the mother of two school-aged children in the Tri-State’s second-largest school district is putting away those packing boxes and celebrating instead.

“There were a lot of happy tears,” said Grimm.

By a razor thin margin, voters appear to have passed the levy after three previous unsuccessful attempts. The levy passed by just 241 votes, but it does not include 211 provisional ballots cast by voters in the school district. Those votes will likely even further narrow the margin and as such will most likely trigger a recount, said Butler County election officials Tuesday.

The proposal combined 2.0 mills, or $5 million, for permanent improvements and 3.5 mills, or $8.5 million, for operations. That means district residents will pay $192 more each year per $100,000 value of their home.

Lakota is the eighth-largest school district in the state and has 17,065 students enrolled this year. The district, which hadn’t won voter approval for a levy since 2005, has reduced its annual spending by $20.8 million since voters struck down the first levy in 2010.  It cut 300 teachers from its staff, eliminated a school period for high school freshman and sophomores and it reduced daily music, art and physical education classes to one day per week.

It also increased athletic and band participation fees to $500 for each student per sport, eliminated busing at the high school level and for all students living within a two-mile radius of their school.

But just a day after the election, school officials are already planning to bring many of those resources back.

They’ll start immediately by instituting a financial cap for families who have children who participate in multiple sports and the participation costs will lower next school year. The maximum a family with one child would pay is $800 and for a family with four children the cap will be set at $2,000.

“We now have 600 fewer students participating in extra curricular activities since we put those [higher] fees in. It’s discouraged students because of the cost to their families,” said Randy Oppenheimer, spokesperson for the Lakota School District.

The district transportation department will meet this week to begin developing their plan to offer busing to an additional 2,200 students in grades two through six who live farther than one mile from the school.

That’s a change that will affect Kim Reber, a mother of three girls enrolled in the district, who had busing cut after a previous levy failure.

“I have to pick my daughters up every day,” said Reber. “You have to wait in the half hour line every single day.”

In addition, Lakota officials are now prepping to make some new changes in the district.

They’re acting on proposed permanent improvements including technology enhancements, facility upkeep and maintenance on the district’s 25 school buildings and grounds and they’ll also make some updates to safety and security measures next year.

Lakota reserved $6.3 million out of their proposed $13.8 million levy for safety upgrades. That plan includes adding better and more security cameras, improving school building entrances and upgrading current alarm systems.

They’re also tripling more school resource officers on board, which increases their total number to 10 across the district. Oppenheimer said Lakota officials are now preparing for meetings with the Butler County Sheriff’s Office and the West Chester Township police department to find the additional officers to do the job.

They district will also hire about a dozen more employees for the next school year, as a result of the additional courses that will be offered with the new funds.

Students in fourth through six grades will be offered one additional day of art, music or physical education and students in ninth grade will have another period added to their class schedule.

“Adding an extra day of art, music and [physical education] requires an extra day of teachers and adding a seventh bell adds more teachers, too,” said Oppenheimer.

But for the staunch opponents, the passage of the tax hike has caused some to think about moving out of the school system. 

Robert Shelton, a 64-year-old West Chester Township resident, who has lived on a fixed income for the past four years, said he and his wife may consider moving to another county as a result of the school tax hike.

“We always said we’re here until the taxes run us out, and that was already a joke but it’s not so funny anymore,” said Shelton. “If they go any higher, when you’re on fixed income, taxes are a big concern.”

As opponents look for new options in anticipation of the new tax hike, supporters

like Grimm and Reber are just thankful they don't have to. 

"I have formed true friendships in this community, as have my children. We are rooted here. We are immersed in this place and I did not want have to leave this community behind," said Grimm.  

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