Local schools seek voter approval to bolster financesWritten by Caitlin McGlade | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Lake Local Schools treasurer Jeff Carpenter calls it a perfect storm.
Shattered by state cuts and federal funding losses and starved by dwindling tax revenue, schools statewide are trying to pick up the pieces by asking voters to approve levies.
On Aug. 7, Carpenter’s district will seek votes to pass a 6.75-mill operating levy while Swanton Local Schools will try to pass a renewal 4.45-mill levy. The two districts’ ballot issues join 34 other school issues on ballots statewide. Over the past two years, the average number of school levies appearing simultaneously on ballots statewide was about 20, said Howard Fleeter, consultant for the Education Tax Policy Institute.
Toledo Public Schools (TPS) announced in May that it would put a 6.9-mill continuing levy on the November ballot. But the district might lower that amount based on a better-than-projected budget calculation reached in the past few weeks.
The districts on Lucas and Wood County ballots have something in common: Their last attempts at levies failed. Officials say they have no more room to cut.
“They’ve cut us to the bone from the state and the federal level and the only thing we have left is to go to our property owners and ask for assistance,” said Jim Gault, chief academic officer TPS.
Lake Local Schools lost more than $1.6 million in federal and state funding from 2011 to 2012, while TPS has lost $3.3 million in state dollars. Cuts pushed the districts to seek levies.
When the last TPS levy failed in November 2010, drastic measures were taken.
TPS closed Libbey High School, cut middle school and freshmen sports and stopped busing high school students. The walk zone for other grades increased to two miles from one.
“Everything we stated that would be lost came to fruition,” Gault said. “I’m not sure if the community thought those things were going to happen.”
Since 2008, the district has let go at least 1,000 employees and ended the gifted program for grades three through six. If the November levy were to pass, the district could bring back the gifted program, Gault said.
School funding has been on the decline for years, but the most recent major cuts came from a state budget passed last year that left Ohio public schools with $2.8 billion less than before from both federal and state sources. Federal stimulus money had run out — a reality districts had braced for, but one that nonetheless took its toll, Carpenter said.
Less support from the state and federal government saddles local property owners with the responsibility to cover district losses, creating disparities among districts based on property value and voters willing to pass levies, said Lisa Sobecki, TPS school board member.
The filing deadline for the November ballot is August 8 so it is too soon to tell how many schools will ultimately seek levies, but the number is expected to be high.
“What we’ve been expecting is that the effects of the budget are really going to show up on the ballot this year,” Fleeter said.
Gov. John Kasich had to fill an $8 billion budget hole when he took office; law requires that Ohio maintain a balanced budget each cycle.
Mike Mahoney, spokesperson for the Ohio Educators Association, said educators are waiting for Kasich to release a new funding formula.
“Ohio’s elected officials have a constitutional responsibility to provide high-quality public education regardless of where [students] reside and socioeconomic status,” Mahoney said. “We are supporting the development of an objective method in a transparent funding formula that is tied to what children need for their education and instruction and we haven’t seen that yet.”
Ohio’s method for funding public education was ruled unconstitutional 10 years ago and state politicians have been mulling over the issue since. Former Gov. Ted Strickland presented House Bill 1, which used an evidence-based model to identify successful practices and allot money for districts to implement a list of components, but Kasich scrapped it when he took office.
Carpenter said he didn’t think Strickland’s plan would have worked given the funding levels.
“It was a good attempt to try to quantify what a school district does and how much each costs, but there were 28 different major components, and of that, four of those didn’t get funded at all and 10 of them were partially funded,” Carpenter said. “I don’t care what formula or method you come up with, if you’re not going to fully fund it then why bother?”
Kasich’s spokesperson Rob Nichols said that in the wake of spent federal stimulus dollars and depleted local revenues, the state’s payment share increased by 3.5 percent with Kasich’s budget. The office will likely release a new funding formula in conjunction with next year’s budget.
“Ohio is one of the worst states for putting money into the actual instruction and pouring too much money into bureaucracy and red tape and administration,” Nichols said.
As schools await a new plan, Mahoney said districts statewide are having to cut nontesting areas, including physical education, music and art programs. At risk are a number of advanced placement courses for foreign languages and equipment such as up-to-date computers, he said.
“There is a slightly different story at every school district, but the sad thing is that what we all have in common is less opportunity for students,” Mahoney said.
Jeff Schlade, superintendent for Swanton Local Schools, said federal and state losses have made passing this levy more critical. Voters approved this levy in 1995 and have renewed it multiple times since, with the exception of last March.
If passed, the levy does not represent a new tax, just a continuation of the same millage district voters have paid since 1995, Schlade said.
The district’s revenue has dropped to $12 million from $14 million since 2009, resulting in a round of cuts that severed the high school industrial arts program. The district also laid off two secretarial employees and an elementary music teacher.
Some positions were left unfilled after employees retired as well, said Joyce Kinsman, treasurer of Swanton Local Schools.
Carpenter echoed layoff concerns.
The district has laid off eight teachers, two counselors and 12 classified employees within the past couple of years, and passing the November levy is a matter of staying afloat, he said.
Lake Local Schools didn’t lose much basic state aid — but lost staggering amounts from state-collected tax revenue, Carpenter said. A few years ago, a local tax on personal, tangible property was phased out and replaced by a state-collected commercial activity tax. This new fund sufficiently supplanted the local tax until 2012, when the district received $1.1 million a year compared to its share of $1.4 million in 2011. By 2013, the state will allot Lake Local Schools $928,260 from that fund. The state also eliminated a public utility tangible tax, which brought the district $130,800 — creating a “tremendous loss” for the schools, Carpenter said.
Losing these types of taxes became the real kicker for districts statewide over the past two years, Fleeter said.
In addition to that, the district gets less money from the state each time a student takes a voucher to go to another district or a private school, Carpenter said.
“We’re not alone,” he said.
Trouble at TPS
If voters were to pass the TPS levy, it would mark the first flow of new operating money since 2001. Despite cuts, the district has been able to bring back some middle school sports, initiate an early high school options program and a distance learning lab. TPS has also integrated special education students into the classrooms with their peers.
The levy would allow the district to start an International Baccalaureate program at Start High School, a performing arts program at Bowsher High School and a renewable energy program at Woodward High School, among other special programs at other schools. TPS would pilot an online digital classroom, replacing some textbooks with tablets, Gault said.
But a problem looms that might interfere: Superintendent Jerome Pecko came forward two weeks ago with news about school officials retroactively withdrawing and re-enrolling frequently absent students.
The Ohio Department of Education has launched an investigation.
Pecko said he has thought about how the investigation might impact voter support for the levy.
“[The issue] is out there and it’s a factor … I’m hoping that the state will come to the conclusion that what we’re doing is not of the stature that would require any kind of sanctions,” he said.
The potential decision to lower the levy millage has nothing to do with the Ohio Department of Education investigation, Pecko said.
TPS Treasurer Matthew Cleland said Aug. 2 that the most recent five-year budget projection calculated $8.5 million more than the previous one had.
Officials discovered at the end of June that the state will allot $3.7 million more to TPS in foundation funds than it had announced in May, Cleland said.
In addition, fewer students took EdChoice vouchers than expected and last school year’s switch from the middle school format to the kindergarten through eighth grade structure saved $1 million more than anticipated.
Union concessions helped to save money on health care plans as well, Cleland said.
TPS’ annual budget is about $300 million.