Foley: Levy defeat would cost TPS $15.8 millionWritten by Justin R. Kalmes | | firstname.lastname@example.org
John Foley knows convincing voters to open their pocketbooks is always a hard sell, let alone during tough economic times.
But the Toledo Public Schools (TPS) superintendent wants voters to understand the consequences if $15.8 million were taken away from the district’s general fund of about $300 million.
“This money in the general fund gives us the ability to keep teachers in classrooms; to keep our class sizes low; to provide new textbooks; to maintain and to heat and light our buildings,” Foley said. “And to reduce $15.8 million will mean significant reductions in our budget. Even though it’s a small percentage, it’s a big chunk. You can’t just flush that out … because we’re pretty tight already.”
Such is the case for the district, which is asking voters to renew a five-year, 6.5-mill operating levy March 4. The operating levy costs the owner of a $100,000 home in the district about $117 a year. The levy was last passed in 2003.
Without the renewal, Foley said, additional cuts will be made in a district that has already reduced its staff by 932 positions and closed 10 schools in seven years.
“We have adjusted and tightened our belts as opposed to continuing to spend at the highest levels and not making those adjustments,” Foley said. “I think we’ve been pretty good stewards of money. We continue to see our costs increase, but have been operating with the same dollars generated.”
The dismal economy isn’t the only challenge the renewal, labeled Issue 7, faces. The Urban Coalition of Toledo, a public education watchdog group, launched a campaign Feb. 21 to urge voters to reject the levy renewal.
Coalition members said they are fed up with the district ignoring its many shortcomings, which include failing schools, a discipline system that promotes suspensions and expulsions, and a construction program that denied equal treatment to buildings in the city’s most depressed areas.
“We’re not happy with government and we’re not happy with our elected leaders,” said Urban Coalition member Steven Flagg. “We’re looking for action and no more empty promises.”
Among the charges the Urban Coalition made is that the district is controlled by a bureaucracy composed of the TPS Board of Education, the Lucas County Democratic Party and the Toledo Federation of Teachers, the union that represents teachers, paraprofessionals and substitute teachers.
Urban Coalition member Tyrone Sturdivant said the district’s claim that rejecting the levy renewal will only hurt children is a farce.
“Our children have already been sacrificed at the altar of greed,” he said.
The Urban Coalition also claims the district has a large cash reserve when combining $18 million left over from the last school year; $21 million projected to be on hand at the conclusion of this year; and an estimated $10 million in a health care account.
Those numbers are correct, Foley said, but the coalition is wrong in viewing the money carried over as a surplus. Even when counting money carried over from this year and last, the district is projected to have a $105 million deficit at the end of the 2011-12 school year because of decreased revenues and increased expenses. That projection assumes passage of the levy.
The district’s success, Foley said, correlates to that of the city.
“If you want new businesses in the city, you’ve got to have a strong school system,” he said. “You can’t get a stronger school system by bleeding it and taking more money away.”
Toledo resident Larry Quinn, who plans to vote against the levy renewal, said the district needs more minority male teachers to serve as role models for its black students. He said teachers should learn the culture of the neighborhoods where they teach so they can relate to their students.
Quinn, who graduated from Scott High School in 1956, said the district’s $800 million “Building for Success” program has ignored the needs of buildings that need the most help like Scott and Libbey high schools.
“I call it the ‘Building for Failure’ program,” Quinn said. “It’s a joke as far as I’m concerned.”
Foley agreed the district’s suspension and expulsion rate is too high, but he isn’t willing to hinder the learning environment of students who behave to give extra attention to disruptive individuals in the classroom.
“If students are destructive to that learning climate, it’s not fair to the other students to kind of look the other way when that behavior exists,” he said.
Chris Varwig, president of the TPS Parent Congress, said it is not the district’s job to please all of the community’s individual groups. She accused the Urban Coalition of trying to gain influence over the district by attempting to defeat the levy renewal.
“I don’t think that you should tie the hands of the district and take away money from the district to advance what you think the district needs to do,” Varwig said.
Varwig, whose daughter attends Bowsher High School, said the Urban Coalition only adds to the district’s negative public image.
“I think that the children of this district — they look at what is being said in the media on a daily basis and they take it to heart,” she said. “They already think that TPS schools are inferior because of what they hear in the media every day and the Urban Coalition moves that along.”
Should the levy renewal fail March 4, the Toledo school board could decide to place another request on the November ballot before the current levy term expires. Flagg said Urban Coalition members would welcome a chance to meet with the school board and administrators. If the Urban Coalition is satisfied with how its concerns are met, it would likely support a levy renewal in November, he said.
The district has met with its critics, Foley said, and would do so again.
“We know we’ve got room to improve. We’ve got to make progress,” he said. “It’s pretty tough to do without dollars to do it.”