If this is election season, there must be a levy campaign going on in the Little Miami School District.

For the ninth time within three years, voters will be asked Nov. 8 to approve a tax increase to fund the school system that lies some 30 miles northeast of Cincinnati, in what's been one of the booming slices of Warren County, the southwest Ohio region's fastest-growing county for decades. But this community finds itself in an electoral cycle of "been here, done that." The levy campaigns play out the same way, over and over.

Despite the schools' consistent "Excellent" scores in state academic grading and the conventional wisdom that good schools are good for property values, the levies have gone down in defeat a remarkable eight straight times.

While that record of rejection is abnormally high, some education officials say the Little Miami experience could become more common across Ohio as state budget and funding cuts, housing market declines and a continued bleak economy pressure school budgets.

The Little Miami district is now under state supervision, classified in "fiscal emergency," and signs that the national recovery from the Great Recession is sputtering doesn't brighten chances that the ninth time will be the charm.

In a scenic area along the Little Miami River with verdant farmland wrapping around thick new subdivisions, the 98-square-mile district's high academic ratings and state-of-the-art campuses, combining the latest technology with attractive college-style brick buildings, served to fuel the area's growth in the last decade.

The financial duress began slowly, with a $6 million decline in state funding from a formula change in 2007. It snowballed as the recession set in just as rapid growth, which saw enrollment grow by 66 percent in a decade, peaked with 335 new students in one year. Enrollment was more than 4,000 for 2008-2009.

"It's the Perfect Storm," explains Kym Dunbar, Little Miami school board president. "When you go back, the housing market fell out, the state funding fell out, unemployment went up; the foreclosure piece didn't help us .... It's like a triple whammy."

"Time to Cut Back"

For steadfast levy opponents such as resident Bill Nicholson, a perfume industry consultant, the schools have to do what he and everyone else with declining income has to do "” stop spending more than they have, cut back wherever they can, and make ends meet.

"Welcome to the real world," he says. "They think the taxpayer's pocket is bottomless. People can't give them money they don't have."

He already pays more than $4,000 a year in property tax, he says, and the latest levy "” 13.95 mills or $427 for every $100,000 in property valuation "” would add more than $1,000 a year to that.

Little Miami officials have tried a variety of approaches "” longterm levies, short-term levies, levies that slowly rise over years, an income tax, a combination levy and earnings tax. All voted down; some by big margins, some by a few hundred votes, but all rejected.

With so many attempts, Dunbar notes, they now are facing "voter fatigue" with the frequent levy campaigns, not to mention increasing intolerance of taxes.

Statewide, education officials say it has been taking districts about three times at the ballot to pass levies, and they expect to see more schools going to the ballot repeatedly as state cuts and the economy take their tolls.

"I think given the current economic status of the state, it's getting more and more difficult," says Damon Asbury, a veteran Ohio school official who is now director of legislative services for the Ohio School Boards Association.

There have been thousands of teacher and other school-related job cuts across the state for this school year, against the backdrop of the heated debate over collective bargaining that has hit teacher unions.

The school boards association says it sees more and more school districts forced to make budget cuts because of reduced government funding.

Levy foes in Little Miami and elsewhere say the schools are often top-heavy with administrators and overstaffed with teachers who receive generous benefits and retirement programs. They often complain that schools cut first in ways that directly affect students and their families "”curtailing buses and after-school programs and charging fees for sports and activities.

"They try to blackmail people into passing the levies," Nicholson says.

While taking those kind of steps, Little Miami school officials say, they have also eliminated 100 positions in the last three years, cut their budget by $10 million and adopted across-the-board pay freezes.

But they also have hiked pay-to-play fees to $651 per student, per sport, while halting activities that don't have enough parents willing to pay to sustain them.

No more high school musicals at Little Miami; no Art Club, no Science Club, no student newspaper.

As building operations have been consolidated, some students have had to take turns using desks in some classes, and locker rooms have been used for classrooms, school officials say.

For tax-tired voters, the argument that voting for levies is good for your property value can ring hollow, especially if, like Nicholson, you have no children in the school system. When a levy proponent made that case, Nicholson countered with a question: "Explain to me how I can spend that increase in my property value?" He points out increased property values mean higher taxes, not a benefit to someone who is not planning to sell.

At any rate, the Little Miami financial turmoil is taking a toll on the once-booming housing market in the southeastern Warren County community.

Re/Max Realtors Bill and Liz Spear say home sales prices have fallen about 10 percent so far this year, to an average of some $163,000. Bill Spear says they've had at least one owner who was in a hurry to sell because of the school tax situation.

"From our viewpoint, we're hopeful that this November will be the one that gets it done," he says.

Last year, for the first time in 20 years, enrollment dropped "” by 250 students. Enrollment is falling again this year as families move out of the district, enroll in private schools or in other districts that have open enrollment.

With state loan obligations topping $11 million, Little Miami officials have begun asking what the end game is.

Some have suggested that the district might eventually have to be dissolved, its students absorbed by neighboring districts, although there's not currently a state-approved way for the district to disappear.

What are the Chances?

Tim Viles, a father of four, who brought his family here because of the chance to get a five-acre lot in a good school district, is a little perplexed by the tax opposition.

"The schools are still scoring well, they have a beautiful area here," says Viles. He and wife Megan always supported levies in their former home area of Vandalia, Ohio, even though their children were in Catholic schools. "I don't think we realized the situation that we were getting into here."

They both will vote yes this November.

"How can you not?" asks Megan.

Nicholson, the levy foe, chuckles when asked the chances for this one.

"The unemployment numbers are still high; did you see the stock market today?" he replies.

"You tell me."