A look at Mason’s proposed operating levy

On Tuesday, March 17, for the first time in ten years, voters are faced with a choice: Whether to pass a Mason City Schools levy.

Every Mason resident’s ballot in the March 2020 will have Issue 12 on it — a proposed property tax levy that would benefit Mason schools. The issue is an operating levy, meaning that it would pay for the school’s current expenses, such as teacher’s salaries, athletics programs, and various educational services.

The total value of the levy is 9.96 mills; it is an escalating levy, meaning that the 9.96 mills will be phased in over a period of two years. The first part, a 4.71 mills tax, would go into effect in 2020, and would increase current property taxes by approximately nine percent for each resident. The second part, a 5.25 mills tax, would be timed to phase in at the same time that a 5.25 mills tax approved in 2005 will phase out; this means that when the second part goes into effect in 2021, property owners’ taxes will neither increase nor decrease.

THE LEVY: TAXES

Levy impact extends beyond the schools

Lily Geiser | Editor-in-Chief

Passing the levy would mean an increase in property taxes for Mason residents — per month, it would be approximately $13.75 per $100,000 of true value on a home. This would account for an increase in property taxes of approximately nine percent for each homeowner. However, according to Warren County auditor Matt Nolan, because the 2005 bond levy expires in 2021, there would be a 20 percent difference between the taxes that a homeowner would be paying if the levy did not pass versus if it did.

“I don’t want people to be scared that their taxes are going up 20 percent from what they are,” Nolan said. “That’s not true. But I do want people to know, if you vote no, your taxes are going to drop. If you vote yes, your taxes are going to go up. The gap between those is 20 percent.”

Although taxes will not increase as drastically as 20 percent, they will still increase for all Mason residents. Mason resident Sharon Poe is the treasurer for the Committee to Preserve Mason, a group opposed to the operating levy. Poe said that she is concerned that the tax will impact seniors and lower income residents.

“It’s still a 20 percent property tax increase because that money was our money, it was going back in our budget,” Poe said. “We have five year forecasts too, we have bills we have to pay. Many [people] are living on Social Security, living on fixed incomes.”

For some, the increase in taxes may pose a new strain to the budget. However, other residents, like Mason resident Tony Thomas, believe that giving back to the school district is worth the extra money. Thomas said that he has voted for every school levy on his ballot in the last fifty years, and plans to vote for the Mason levy in March.

“Everything that I have accomplished in my life has been because I am a product of the public school system,” Thomas said. “My parents didn’t have a lot of money — they voted for [levies]. Everybody in our development voted for [them]. For me, it’s less than a dollar a day in taxes. That doesn’t even factor in.”

While many homeowners may be able to work an increased tax into their budget, others on fixed incomes or who are lower income members of the community may find themselves unable to make ends meet. Mason resident Roger C. Herron, who moved to Mason from the Little Miami school district when the taxes increased too much for him to afford, said that he would be unable to afford to continue living in Mason if the levy passed.

“I live on a military compensation check,” Herron said. “My wife is at home right now, scratching pennies, trying to pay the taxes. This levy will break my bank. I can’t afford to do that. And I’m not the only one who’s going to lose my home over this.”

The decision to vote or not vote for the levy is a 

personal one, that will depend entirely on what a person can or is willing to pay. Thomas said that he believes each person should vote according to what they value, and what they can afford.

“I think people need to decide what their values are,” Thomas said. “They then need to decide if they can afford them and vote accordingly. I have some neighbors [for who] a buck or two a day is going to make a difference — and they should vote no. The rest of us, we’ve got not one thing to complain about — not one.”

THE LEVY: SPORTS

A potentially prohibitive cost increase for athletes

Kaelyn Rodrigues | Staff Writer

If the levy does not pass, pay-to-play fees for sports programs will increase from $180 to $800 for high school athletes, and from $120 to $600 for middle school athletes. This cost will cover the total costs for Mason’s athletic programs, a majority of which the school currently pays for. By increasing pay-to-play fees, the district will save 1.2 million dollars.

Tracey Carson, Mason’s Public Information Officer, said it was difficult to make this decision knowing that it would negatively impact student athletes and their families.

”We know how important and critical it is for students to be connected to their peers, and athletics for a lot of kids means a lot more than just playing the sport,” Carson said. “It’s really a way to connect with your peers and we know increasing the fee [will cause] families to make some difficult decisions.”

Junior Marilyn Popplewell has been part of the Mason basketball and volleyball programs since middle school. Popplewell said since she would have to pay this significantly greater fee for only one year, she is more concerned for underclassmen and middle schoolers who may not be able to afford those fees for the rest of their high school careers.

“It is a lot more money; that’s my family’s money and it could be going to a lot of other things besides playing sports,” Popplewell said. “I would still play both sports, it would just cost a lot more. I only have one more year here, but I worry more about younger kids, like the middle school students, who are going to have to pay that for six more years.”

While some students will not be affected by the fee increase, others will find it difficult to pay for, especially if they are involved in multiple sports. MHS Spanish teacher and cross country coach Tom Rapp said that while more committed athletes will likely continue to participate, students who play sports recreationally will not.

“Asking parents to pay $800 to run cross country will certainly be a big task for some students,” Rapp said. “We have families on our team that can certainly afford that, and we have other families where that’s going to be a bit of a hardship. I think the top athletes that this is a real high priority for, their families will figure out a way to pay, but those who enjoy the sport but are not quite as committed will not participate.”

Rapp said this decrease in participation would affect the cross country team by reducing its competitive edge.

“Our team is a pyramid; we have a broad base of athletes, and the broader the base, the higher the peak,” Rapp said. “We ask every athlete along the way to do their job to push the people ahead of them. If we have a smaller team, we will lose that edge of being able to push the top guys because there’s another group of guys right behind them and another group right behind them. We would lose a lot of that dynamic.”

Carson said that although the increase in pay-to-play fees will negatively affect many Mason students, the decision to keep offering sports programs gives students  and their families the option to continue playing.

“It’s been a consistent goal since we built the high school in 2002 to have one hundred percent of our kids involved in extracurriculars,” Carson said. “It’s hard to make that decision, because we know that that has an impact on our students. At the same time, it does allow us to continue offering athletics for students and letting families make that decision for themselves, rather than choosing to not offer them.”

Popplewell said that if the pay-to-play fees go up, many students will not be able to afford it and therefore will not be able to play sports.

“I just think it’s important that every kid gets the opportunity to play,” Popplewell said. “I think [if] the levy fails and the pay-to-play fees go up so much, that’s taking the opportunity away from some people.”

THE LEVY: THE ARTS

Fewer resources, fewer programs

Ann Vettikkal | Staff Writer

If the levy fails, the arts will have to adapt to the marked cuts in their department. High school orchestra teacher Stephanie Jones is also the performing arts leader for students from sixth to twelfth grade for the Mason City Schools district, which means she oversees curriculum and budgetary concerns for band, orchestra, choir, and theater. If the levy were to fail, Jones said that major changes would occur at the music department. 

“Our department would be hit quite a bit,” Jones said. “If the levy were to fail, [the district] would cut 20% of our music staff for grades six through 12, which represents three and a half teaching positions. This includes band, orchestra, and choir. In addition, the district has also stated that they would restrict the number of students that are allowed to participate in [music] classes.”

According to Jones, this change would have a major impact on the way performing arts classes are run. Simply put, things would not be the same. Jones said that the reduction in staff would likely occur at the lower grade levels, where students are just beginning to build their musical foundation and need personal interactions with their teacher. 

“We’re going to have to shift our resources to make sure that the students have the best experience possible,” Jones said. “That means working with staffing, financial structure, and how we support those other programs and those students. It’s not going to be the same as it is this year but at least we can find ways to mitigate [the losses].”

Although theater is not included in the specific cuts Jones talked about, as it occurs well beyond school hours, an impact would still be present. According to Drama Department Chair Allen Young, supplemental contracts supplied by the district would no longer be funded. 

“[The contracts] pay for a costumer, director, and technical director for each [play], and also an orchestra conductor and musical director for the musical,” Young said. “All of those costs will be passed on to the students participating in the program.”

With the proposed plan, Young said that the fees for students participating would increase to at least $105 from the current $50 fee. If this were to occur, Young said that it could one of many factors that affect the theater program’s ability to put on productions. 

“If participation numbers were to decline and fail to meet the supplemental costs, then the productions for next year would be suspended,” Young said. “There would be a good chance of not having theater productions.”

For those involved, the arts are a core part of their life, which goes beyond the 4 hours they have the class each week. Senior Arnav Kamath said the theater program has helped him more than he has helped it; even though he will not immediately feel the effects of the cuts, he says it would be “heartbreaking” to see it go the year after he leaves. 

“I’ve met a lot of people through doing things like set work and costume work,” Kamath said. “And if we don’t have the money for that, a freshman and sophomore who are new to theater won’t have the same experience that I have. Theatre will be a completely different experience — and definitely not for the better.”

Likewise, Jones said that the cuts in the other performing arts would create a different experience — and one that can’t provide as much attention to each student. She started the orchestra program in 2002 and said that learning the craft is a crucial keystone to a student’s development as they progress through education. 

“We are teaching skill and technique,” Jones said. “But more importantly, we’re teaching students how to work cooperatively in a group. [By] being part of a large ensemble, where nobody sits on the bench, we all have this public display of our work that is a performance and we depend on everybody to do that.

For other arts such as drawing, photography, digital image design, and ceramics, the impact of the levy is less clear but there may likely be some reduction in resources or staff. Senior Makenna Burton has taken a wide selection of the arts courses that Mason offers. For her, the time provides a break in her day, a time where she can use the supplies offered by the school to her advantage.

“I think we’re so lucky to have all the appliances that we have here,” Burton said. “And so whenever you take an art class, it’s just kind of relieving.”

The common consensus is that performing arts are not bound by the final products that they create — they build the type of skills that can only come from the dedication it takes to master an instrument, according to Jones. 

“Philosophically, we believe as a department that the ability for students to participate in the performing arts is fundamental to the human experience and to a well-rounded education,” Jones said. “The discipline that it takes to learn a performing art, the amount of practice that goes into it — those are all skills that have been shown to build hardworking, successful, and happy individuals throughout their lives.”

THE LEVY: ACADEMIC RESOURCES

State minimums remain, nonmandated programs restricted

Lily Geiser | Editor-in-Chief

Along with potential decreases in course offerings and funding for arts, the school district plans to make significant cuts to programs designed to help students academically. State required supports such as 504 plans and Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) would still be in place; however, academic supports for those and other students would be reduced.

Among those programs, the class Comet Connections would be cut entirely if the levy fails to pass. Comet Connections is a support intervention class for students struggling academically. Daniel Mullins, the teacher for the program, said that he believes that cutting the program would make it much more difficult for his students to keep up with their schoolwork.

“It’s not a state minimum kind of thing,” Mullins said. “But the district’s been really good [at] recognizing it was a helpful program. I think it still is, so I’d be lying if I said I don’t take it personally that it’s one of the potential cuts if the levy is not successful. Because these kids, they need somebody else. There’s not a lot of other districts that are as fast-moving as Mason is, and as academically challenging.”

Mullins said that he was hired at Mason High School specifically to help create the Comet Connections program after he had overseen a similarly successful program at another school district. After 18 years, he said that he’s seen how it has helped all kinds of students in the classroom.

“Some of the kids have chaotic home situations where there’s no predictability, and this is the closest thing to normalcy that they have during the day,” Mullins said. “And then I’ve also got kids that are 4.0 kids, intensely overscheduled and [in] all sorts of activities — they’re just trying to juggle all of it. It helps them take care of business for school during the school day.”

Comet Connections is not the only program that helps students academically that could potentially be cut. The peer tutoring program at the high school would also lose funding, which could make it more difficult for students to find the help they need in their classes. Senior Haleigh Eckert, who started using the peer tutoring program at the start of the school year, said that the program helped her learn material for her AP Calculus class.

“I was expecting [Calculus] to be really hard, but I wasn’t expecting it to be as hard as it has been for me,” Eckert said. “I did struggle — so just having that extra resource, and the fact that I can do something about it instead of just being helpless, has been really comforting.”

Eckert is just one of approximately 400 students who use the peer tutoring program, as well as about 200 tutors and student leaders. Senior Katherine Draginoff, who is participating in an independent study with the program, said that the program has helped her as much as it helped the students she tutors.

“I love tutoring — I’ve considered being a teacher because of it.,” Draginoff said. “I love helping out others around me. And it really has an impact on the 

people there — a lot of people really love the program, and they want to take out as much from it as they’re giving it. A lot of students rely on this program.”

The programs that Mason offers currently extend far beyond what the state requires — with potential cuts in the face of the levy, there would likely still be additional support, but they would be significantly fewer than what the school currently has. Mullins said that, although he knows the programs are successful, ultimately the decision to pass the levy is up to voters.

“I know the kids think that it’s helping,” Mullins said. “I know that everybody who understands it agrees that it’s helping. I know that the other core teachers would agree with that. So it’s frustrating. For it to continue, it’s going to be in the hands of voters.”

THE LEVY: MENTAL HEALTH

Recent changes backpedaled

Ann Vettikkal | Staff Writer

With all the student resources that Mason has to offer, one in particular has been receiving a noteworthy amount of attention. But amidst Mason’s recent push for more mental health awareness, the outcome of the levy may slow its progress.

In just the past month, Hope Squad hosted journalist and author Kate Fagan to discuss the impacts of a high-achieving culture on mental health and Students Involved in Befriending Students (SIBS) promoted “Say Something” week to raise awareness on matters such as suicide prevention and gun violence. These events are indicators of the larger narrative for which Mason is advocating. 

But the type of conversations that Mason now welcomes have not always been around. Schlaeger talked about the changes he’s seen over his 19 years at Mason that have begun to normalize mental health awareness and the power of simply reducing surrounding shame.

“I always thought there was a stigma about mental health,” Schlaeger said. “My first month [teaching], I was walking down the hall, and saying hi to someone, and I think that person got bullied because it was like, ‘oh what’s wrong with you why is the school psychologist saying hi to you in the hall.’ So my life goal was to not be a stigma if someone says hi to me in the hall. And I think I’ve accomplished that.”                 

The cuts to programs at the high school are likely to also impact groups that provide support for students. Hope Squad member and sophomore Natalie Brown said that the class is a place where she doesn’t feel like she’s “hiding a part of herself.” She said that the overall strain from the levy’s failure could also affect Hope Squad’s role. 

“I think we would definitely not be where we are today,” Brown said. “We wouldn’t have as [many] resources and it would be a lot harder on us as well because if everybody else’s stuff is getting cut, like [their] favorite sports or activities — the stuff that keeps them going. That kind of puts us in a situation where we have to really be looking out.”

Even without taking into account Hope Squad, mental health could seriously be affected. School psychologist Jeff Schlaeger said that a general cutback of resources in his department would take place. 

“I think just based on sheer numbers and services, we’d be down some counseling, we’d be down some mental health, we’d be down at least one guidance counselor,” Schlaeger said. “And when you start crunching those numbers at such a big school, suddenly there’s not as much there for the kids to make it feel like a smaller place.”

According to Affatato, this could be a problem when considering that the high school is one of many avenues that students should be able to turn to when they are struggling. 

“In today’s day and age, I think it’s all of our responsibility to help people that are dealing with mental health concerns,” Affatato said. “Whether you’re a school, a business, the NBA, the NFL, I think all of us are trying to help as many people as possible, to find a voice and get the help that they need if they are struggling with something.”

Beyond mental health focused programs, Schaeger talked about the peripheral matters that would be affected by the levy such as programs that help kids in need of extra support. 

“A lot of our intervention programs, things we do for those kids falling through the cracks, a lot of that would be gone,” Schlaeger said. “I’m in meetings trying to come up with what intervention will work for this kid. If [the levy] doesn’t pass, I’m just picturing myself being in a  meeting next year like ‘well, we used to have this and this, but what will we do with this kid now?’ And that’s very scary to me.”

This new reality that the counselors and psychologists may have to face would be a setback to a field that is already handling a lot of work. For Schlaeger, this is a matter that extends beyond what happens in the four years kids attend the school.

“I don’t think we’re getting to enough kids with less people to get to them,” Schlaeger said. “The schools are the community, and to live and support the community, whether you have kids or not, you have to understand that so much happens here. So much life training beyond the classroom is happening. All the parts that we have to do to get people ready for the world — I think those parts are going to be crunched big time.”

THE LEVY: BUSING

Loss of buses saves money, places responsibility with families

Kaelyn Rodrigues | Staff Writer

If the operating levy does not pass, another service that will be cut in order to save money is busing for the high school and busing to private high schools in the area. According to Todd Petrey, Mason’s Chief Operating Officer, the district would save 1.6 million dollars by eliminating high school busing.

“Right now we have about 103 buses out in the morning for the high school, middle school, and private schools,” Petrey said. “If we reduce high school transportation, we will not need about 25 of those buses. When you pull one bus off the road, that’s $50,000 a bus we’re saving, and that’s not even counting in the cost of buying buses.” 

If high school busing is cut, traffic will drastically increase due to more parents and students being on the road before and after school. Petrey said that if the levy does not pass, the district would create a plan in order to reduce traffic and make transportation more efficient.

“We would definitely develop a plan to where we would let off around the high school, so we would try to come up with a system to alleviate that weight as much as possible,” Petrey said. “At the end of the day, the goal is to get the kids in the building so they can get educated, not wait in the parking lot for traffic. Although there’s still going to be a lot of traffic, we will do everything we can to keep it safe and get people into the buildings.”

Several bus drivers in the district have distributed informational pamphlets to students in order to increase awareness for the levy and how Mason residents will be affected if it fails. Bob Cross, who has been a Mason bus driver since 2018, said he wanted to educate Mason parents and encourage them to vote because of low voter turnout for the 2010 levy.

“Last time, we [didn’t have] very good voter turnout for Mason City Schools parents, and obviously that was one of the reasons that it failed,” Cross said. “I wanted to get involved and make sure that we got the word out to parents to [encourage them] to get out and vote. It’s important that they look at what they could lose, and what the community could lose. The quality of education of Mason schools is without question one of the best in the state, and I don’t want to see us lose that.”

Junior Nandana Nair that since she does not have her driver’s license, she would have difficulty getting to school if the levy fails because her parents both work full-time jobs. 

“My parents can’t drop me off, so that would be an issue,” Nair said. “They both work in Kentucky, and they have to leave for work before I even wake up. I would have to walk or bike unless I found a ride.”

Similarly, junior Jay Baldwin, who currently takes the bus, said that although he would be able to find a ride to school, underclassmen would struggle to do the same.

“I’m lucky enough that my mom can drive me because she works from home, but there are a lot of people that don’t have that,” Baldwin said. “Not everyone can just drive themselves, and there’s not enough student parking spots [for] everyone to drive, even now. And if you’re a freshman, you probably don’t have friends who are juniors or seniors that can drive you.”

Since Cross has only worked for Mason City Schools for the past two years, his hours would most likely be reduced if the levy does not pass. If he does not meet the minimum requirement of 30 hours per week, Cross would no longer qualify for health insurance.

“My hours would be cut because I have only been with Mason as a bus driver since 2018, so I’m lower on the seniority ladder,” Cross said. “I may not be eligible for health insurance for my wife and I, and at my age that’s pretty important. Losing insurance would be tough for us.”

Since many upperclassmen opt to purchase parking passes and drive to and from school, students who cannot drive or do not have a vehicle will be affected as well. Cross said it would be difficult for some students to get to school without being able to rely on buses.

“The students would have to find their own way to school,” Cross said. “That would be tough because obviously those kids that ride the bus to school every day depend on it, and their parents would have to make some sort of adjustment or sacrifice in order to get the kids to school.”

Graphics by Riley Johansen.

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