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North Union Crisis of 1976
Written July 12, 2022


In Pennsylvania, where I now live, local school boards have the power to levy property taxes for their district.  The school directors try to keep the millage rate well below the legal limit so that the voters don't get angry and vote them out at the next election.

In Ohio, where I used to live, local school boards don't have taxing authority.  The levies have to be approved directly by the voters.  Every few years the school board places a renewal of the operating levy on the ballot.  If the voters don't approve, the district will no longer be able to operate! 

In Richwood, where I used to live in Ohio, I graduated from the village's high school in 1965.  Without me, Richwood High School was immediately consolidated into a new North Union School District.

Over the next decade, many property owners lost confidence in North Union and got tired of paying school taxes.  An expensive new high school had been built, but so far it lacked a football field.  Taxpayers considered that an unnecessary expenditure.

Games were played on the old field, more than a mile away by bus.  “District officials didn't want the cost of turning on the lights on the football field for Friday night home games,” recalled Tim Miller in the Richwood Gazette for June 30, 2022.  “Thus, the Wildcats' home games during the 1976 season were played on Saturday afternoons.”

(It was like turning back the clock to the old days, before electric lights were available.  During the 1922 season, the Gazette reported that “Richwood stores except some groceries will close from 3 to 5 Friday afternoon for the football game.”)

Another operating tax levy would be on the ballot for November 2, 1976, and voters were warned that the district would go broke if the measure failed yet again.  It did fail.  The schools promptly shut their doors at the end of the week.  They wouldn't reopen until January, when the Ohio Department of Education's 1977 appropriation could be tapped.

“Once new operational money was dispersed to the district in the new year,” Miller wrote, “the NU winter sports teams were allowed to practice and play games.  It was a bit chaotic, as the Wildcats had to squeeze a lot of games in during a much shorter time frame before tournaments began.”

Denny Hall was a senior that year.  “We were playing four basketball games a week,” he recalled in the Gazette for February 12, 2014, “with little to no time to actually prepare for an opponent.  We barely even had a coach due to lack of funds.  A single coach had to run both varsity and reserve squads.  It was almost like we had to walk uphill both ways to and from school.”

Not only that; when classes resumed in January 1977, wrote Hall, “we were hit with a blizzard.  I remember kerosene space heaters in the music room as the only way to get enough heat to that end of the building.”  Temperatures remained below freezing throughout January.  Cincinnati recorded lows of -22° and -25° on two midmonth mornings.  The statewide average temperature was +11.9°, 17 degrees below normal.

If a majority of voters were reluctant to support scholastic sports, maybe a smaller group of dedicated “boosters” could find other ways to raise money.  “Fortunately,” recalled Miller, “some wise folks within the district came up with the idea of a festival to raise money for the school's athletic department.  That way, they reasoned, no taxpayer money would be used to fund sports.”

They decided that once the weather warmed up, a spring festival would be held on June 4, 1977.  The chairman was Tom Shields, who said “all benefits and proceeds are earmarked toward the return of night football to North Union School District.”

Celebrating the German heritage of many of the area's settlers, the event promised Oktoberfest fun.  Being held four months early, it was called Springen-fest.  (The hyphen was later dropped.)

The location was the American Legion Hall and environs on West Blagrove Street, where there was “less than standing room only” for this “fantastic success.”

I attended a subsequent Springenfest after it had spread onto Franklin Street.  My retired father was one of the volunteers, and I recall buying a bratwurst from former coach Frank Zirbel.

Friday was Americana night, featuring a hoedown from 8 to 11 pm.  Saturday was an all-day German festival, with beer and “Das Las Vegas” games and a street dance with America's Polka King, Frankie Yankovic, starting half an hour before midnight.  (Frankie must have had another gig earlier that evening.) 

Nowadays the event is much different.  Known as the Richwood Sports Festival, it still benefits the non-profit North Union Athletic Committee (NUAC), but now the focus is on running.

A 2500-meter course has been laid out, starting in front of the football pressbox (at the top of this image), using the northern half-lap of the track and passing the high school before heading south towards downtown.  It then loops most of the way around Richwood Lake before turning around and retracing its path to complete 5K.

On June 18, 2022, the 43rd annual Father's Day road race with its $35 entry fee raised about $3,000.  The proceeds went to support Wildcat and Ladycat sports teams.

The Festival has included other events like duathlons (run/bike/run) for individuals and teams.  Recently a shuttle relay was added, in which Dad runs the first 100 meters and then hands the baton to his kid for another 100 out and 100 back before Dad finishes the final 100.  But it all got started with Springenfest.

Tim Miller recalled that the first project funded was a new football field.  Over the years, that was followed by a track and a softball diamond and a field house and other equipment and supplies.  “The current-day Wildcats have a pretty decent set-up as far as facilities are concerned.  That's because of the foresight many folks in the district had years ago to provide for future generations.  I feel the originators of Springenfest ultimately saved the day for North Union sports.”

“Today,” Denny Hall wrote in 2014, “North Union is in sound financial standing.  We have modern facilities that are energy efficient and equipped with the latest technology to support students that have a lot more to learn in high school than I did.  Committed teachers and full coaching staffs yield excellence in the classroom and on the court.  In the 37 years since my class graduated, North Union has reason to be proud.”



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