The governing board of the Stark County Educational Service Center took the first step in placing a 1.49-mill levy on the August ballot that, if approved, will raise funds to help school districts pay for additional safety and mental health resources.

As expected, a school property tax levy to fund safety improvements and additional mental health resources took a step closer Thursday to being placed on the August special election ballot.

With a 4-1 vote, the governing board of the Stark County Educational Service Center took the first step to place a 1.49-mill continuing property tax levy on the Aug. 7 special election ballot to fund safety and security improvements, and additional mental health resources. The board is expected to meet at 6 p.m. Wednesday to take the next – and final – step to officially place it on the Aug. 7 ballot.

'Kids are dying'

Thursday’s vote came after the board heard from retired Family Court Judge Mike Howard who said the recent deaths of students in Stark County continues to cause stress on students, parents and staff.

“Kids are dying and the rest of the kids are afraid, and we need to do something to address that,” he said. “The big question on everyone’s lips is, ‘What are the adults going to do?’”

Howard, who has lectured across the nation about childhood trauma and resiliency, said the idea for the proposed levy came from the people who work with students every day.

“They know what they need in their toolbox to do that job,” said Howard, who has agreed to lead the expected levy campaign.

North Canton Superintendent Jeff Wendorf thanked the board for giving voters a chance to voice their opinion on whether they want to support additional safety and mental health resources.

“Our kids are our most precious commodity and we’ve had a tough year,” Wendorf said. “There’s no signs of that changing until we do some things to address that, not at the symptom level but at the root level.”

The levy, if it is approved by the governing board at its April 25 meeting, will appear on most, but not all, Stark County ballots. Voters in Canton City, Canton Local, Perry will not see the levy on their ballots because the school boards representing those districts chose not to pursue the levy.

If the levy is approved by voters, each participating school district is expected to receive $228 per student. The owner of a $100,000 home will pay an additional $52 a year if the levy is approved. School leaders from multiple districts have said they plan to use the money to hire at least one additional school resource officer and to either hire or contract through a mental health agency additional counselors.

Stark ESC Superintendent Joe Chaddock and Treasurer James Carman said school leaders requested the levy to appear on the August special election ballot to avoid competition with possible school, township and municipal levy requests on the November ballot. If the board would have waited until 2019, it would further delay collections, they said. Chaddock said the participating districts have committed to offsetting the cost to put the issue on a special election. Carman said the board will know how much the special election will cost at its next meeting.

Dissenting vote

Governing board member Fran Miller said she believes the issue of mental health and safety in schools needs to be addressed but cast the lone dissenting vote against putting the measure on the ballot because the levy would be permanent.

“I talk to people who aren’t educators every single day and everybody is concerned about this continual piece,” Miller said. “They want to have accountability and they want to know what that money is going to be spent on.”

She’s also concerned how this levy could impact the Stark County Board of Mental Health and Addiction Recovery’s levy renewal request that likely will appear on the ballot countywide next year.

“If this is billed to be for mental health and security, what are people going to do when that renewal comes around in May?” she asked. “… If their levy were to go down, that would be tragic.”

Board member Barbara Morgan said the board represents the ESC’s member districts and believes it should follow the recommendations it is receiving from school leaders.

“They have to tell us what their people and their boards feel like and what information they’ve gotten from them,” Morgan said. “I don’t feel myself or anyone else on this board has any right to supplement or overcome what they want. … For us not to back them is a very bad precedent because that’s the purpose of this board.”

Board president Gene Feucht believes it would be short-sighted for the board to seek a short-term levy because he believes districts will continue to need the revenue for years to come.

“I don’t have any question about putting it on as permanent because the problem is not short-term,” Feucht said. “The problem is going to be with us.”

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