Thursday, February 26, 2004

A third of Ohio districts seeking money

Financial challenges add up to a 'perfect storm' for schools

By Sue Kiesewetter, Enquirer contributor
and Cindy Kranz, The Cincinnati Enquirer

Helen Shumaker, at her West Chester home, opposes a tax levy for the fast-growing Lakota school system. It would cost homeowners about $536 on a $150,000 house.

When Southwest Ohio voters go to the polls Tuesday to decide 19 school issues, they will hardly be alone.

More than one-third of Ohio's 612 public school districts - 207 - have one or more money issues on the ballot. Altogether, Ohio voters will decide 227 school issues.

Most issues are seeking hundreds of dollars in new taxes from homeowners. If their levies fail, many districts will be forced to cut staff, busing and after-school activities. Some districts, including Batavia and Winton Woods, have announced cuts even if voters approve levies.

"We're approaching a crisis in the state in school funding. It's been clear for many years the system was flawed,'' said Donna Boyland, director of government relations and communications for the Buckeye Association of School Administrators in Columbus.

ELECTION SECTION Special Election Coverage
Ohio school districts typically get more than 50 percent of their funding from local property taxes. Unlike in many states, voters in Ohio must approve those property tax increases. The rest of a district's money comes from the state and other sources.

But cuts and changes in state funding - a system that has been ruled unconstitutional four times since 1997 - are causing many districts to request higher amounts this time. Three of the state's largest levy requests are in Southwest Ohio - Loveland, Three Rivers and Lakota.

Today's stories:
A third of Ohio districts seeking money
A look at school issues and cost to property owners

Online extras:
Gloomy forecast
Levy glossary
School tax Q&A

Previous levy coverage:
State rating an issue in levy ballot
Batavia schools plan cuts
W. Clermont seeks 7.9 mills
Reading needs levy for success, educator says
Middletown schools to trim
Three Rivers seeks a levy
Levy on ballot for new Lakota school
Tax increase sought for Madeira schools
Lakota growth, deficit forces levy, $10 million cuts
Levy vote key to school planning
Edgewood to ask for 6.9-mill levy
Franklin Schools asking for help
Springboro seeks to build two new elementary schools
Mason school board starts steps for 1.8-mill bond issue
Ross to ask voters for two school levies

In the last 10 years, only two elections have had more ballot issues, according to the Ohio Department of Education.

Getting a levy passed is both challenging and expensive. West Clermont Local School District's levy campaign, for example, is estimated to cost $50,000 - all raised privately.

School districts often fail their first time out. In the last decade, Ohio voters faced 4,369 school issues and approved 2,515, a passing rate of 57.5 percent.

School districts are at the mercy of a myriad of factors, from the economy to those who hold grudges against their local districts to retirees on fixed incomes.

But not all senior citizens are "no'' votes.

Betty Baker, a senior citizen from Greenhills, said nobody likes to pay taxes, but she intends to vote for the Winton Woods levy.

"How do you say 'no' to things that are going to make better citizens of the people who are going to lead the country or the community? You're investing in the future, for yourself and the rest of society. It's sort of like buying an insurance policy."

Administrators say many taxpayers don't understand the chief reason schools frequently ask for money - because the districts are shortchanged by an inequitable school funding system, one so complex that explaining it to voters may be the biggest hurdle of all.

"The most difficult thing to do is to try to explain school funding when not even some of our top-level administrators can understand it," said Ken Dirr, retired superintendent of Northwest Local School District, now with the Hamilton County Educational Service Center.

Ohio's lackluster economy, coupled with unexpected funding cuts, have formed a perfect storm of sorts for districts.

"To have one-third of Ohio's school districts with issues in a nongeneral election indicates the severity of the financial difficulties our schools are facing,'' said Scott Ebright, deputy director of communications for the Ohio School Boards Association.

Ohio's school funding system was first challenged in 1991 with the filing of the DeRolph lawsuit, which argued that the state's funding formula was inequitable and inadequate. The lawsuit claimed that Nathan DeRolph, a high school student in Perry County, had to sit on the floor because his district could not afford enough chairs.

Even though the Ohio Supreme Court ruled four times that the state's funding system was unconstitutional and ordered the legislature to fix it, the system has not changed.

Filomena Nelson, a Lakota parent from West Chester, has lived in four other states as an adult and never had to go to the polls to vote on school taxes - until now.

With so many Ohio districts on the ballot, she wonders how it's possible that all of them are mismanaging money.

"I'm not going to say all school systems are spending wisely," Nelson said. "(But) how can we all be in trouble at the same time unless something is wrong with the system?''

Compounding the problem this past year, Ebright said, were two funding cuts, first by Gov. Bob Taft, then by the General Assembly. The General Assembly trimmed $99.9 million from the Department of Education's budget, of which $82.7 million was earmarked for the state's 612 school districts.

Effects of previous legislation give districts little inflationary growth, Ebright said, and some taxes that businesses and utilities pay to school districts have been reduced.

At the same time, districts face increased costs in utilities and fuel, and unfunded mandates, including new testing requirements from President Bush's No Child Left Behind program. The Ohio Department of Education estimates it will cost $1.4 billion to meet the criteria of No Child Left Behind, but only $105 million is available.

Nevertheless, some say the schools should live within their means, as Ohio families must do.

"(Lakota Schools) want to raise my taxes 25 percent. I don't understand when it's going to stop,'' said Donald Johnson of West Chester Township. "I think belt-tightening needs to be done."

That sentiment is gaining hold in Southwest Ohio, where COAST - Citizens Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes - recently announced formation of an affiliated group, North COAST, made up of people north of Interstate 275 between Colerain Township and Milford, along with residents in Butler and Warren counties.

"There is a trend here,'' said Del Landis, a former Kings Local Schools Board of Education member and North COAST leader.

"People are sick of having new expenses - taxes that keep coming. We've had to tighten our belt because of the economy; and we expect the schools to do the same, and they don't.''

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