Why the levy failed: finding reasons closer to home
I found Sarah West’s piece, “The Inequity of Social Spaces in the CH-UH School Community,” (published in the June 2015 Heights Observer), disturbing—not for its descent into academic nomenclature or its application of cookie-cutter sociological concepts onto one section of our community—but for the lack of research about pre-existing conditions, local conditions and other contributing factors.
Her statement that “elites” run school levies highlights a lack of understanding of how campaigns are structured and who manages them, but I’ll leave more discussion of that to someone else. Instead I will point out the three gaping holes in West’s thesis: history, locality and timing.
West shows no research or interest in the history of school levies in CH-UH, in particular Cleveland Heights north of Mayfield Road (Ward Five). If she did, she would see this area’s support for schools at the ballot box has been among the lightest in Cleveland Heights for the last 50 years. Forty to 50 years ago, when operating issues passed with far more support in the overall community, Ward Five showed considerably less. It may have been the fact that not one but two parochial schools serviced this neighborhood, St. Margaret Mary and St. Louis.
A cursory examination of voting patterns shows precincts that are home to private schools of any denomination display weaker ballot support for public school issues. Support then increases in concentric circles away from the school. While both of these schools have closed, it does not mean long-held voting affiliations have changed.
We also need to keep in mind that as Cleveland Heights developed, the Forest Hills and Longwood Estates at Mayfield and Taylor roads caused Ward Five to develop a slightly different identity than the rest of Cleveland Heights, being not fully woven into the rest of the city until after WWII. In the 1950s and ‘60s, when we saw very strong support for school issues, Ward Five came along for the ride voting yes, but at significantly lower levels than the rest of the district.
The legacies of all of these factors can still be seen today, for although many variables have changed in the last 50 years, Ward Five’s support for school levies has been strongest in presidential elections, good in congressional elections and then predicated on the strength of the campaign and general attitude in odd-year elections.
A cursory examination of the data would show West this—not the writings of a French academic.
It is often said all politics is local, and this may have been the case for Ward Five, and specifically the Noble neighborhood. Support in this neighborhood may have been muted by the projected closure of Noble Elementary School in the district’s Master Facilities Plan. While understandable, withholding levy support based on this is not only shortsighted, it ignores the fact that we do not have a set time for Noble’s closure. At present, it is unlikely that any current Noble students would be impacted by reassignment. This is another element West fails to examine.
Last, West does not review how this campaign stacked up against others in regard to messaging, funding, implementation or, more critically, timing. Even though this year’s levy was among the lowest millages in the last 25 years, as well as four years since the last operating issue (instead of the more typical three), it was the ONLY issue on a spring ballot in an odd-year election. While we can examine and debate the strengths and weaknesses of the levy campaign, history shows that in low-turnout elections opposition voters are easier to get to the polls than those in favor of the tax issue.
When we add all of these factors together, we see that while the district needs to make greater efforts to engage Cleveland Heights north of Mayfield, this has more to do with the factors I outlined above than it does with academic theories that contour to someone’s predetermined narrative.
Eric J. Silverman
Cleveland Heights High School '87
CH-UH School Board member