Sunday, August 22, 2004

Schools face addition by subtraction

Coming year features tighter spending but higher expectations; Tax defeats apply pressure for cuts

By Jennifer Mrozowski and Cindy Kranz
Enquirer staff writers

Sycamore schools are cutting 42 teachers; Lakota is dropping 29. Edgewood, Three Rivers, Fairfield and Winton Woods schools are stopping bus rides for 5,000 kids.

Laura Graham, a 4th grade teacher at the Charles T. Young elementary school in the Three Rivers School District in Cleeves, gets her room ready Thursday.
(Enquirer photo/CRAIG RUTTLE)
Ross schools are eliminating district-funded field trips. Ludlow schools are postponing new school roofs.

As more than 276,000 students head back to Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky public schools, districts are struggling to do more with much less. They're cutting teachers and increasing class sizes, dropping some programs and imposing new fees for others.

Some districts are hurting more than most: Fairfield schools cut nearly 25 teaching jobs, trimmed budgets for books and eliminated funding for sports, clubs and buses. New pay-to-play fees are so high - $630 per student per sport - that Fairfield can't field a freshman football team, the first time since the district opened a separate freshman school in 1979.

Officials blame a lagging economy and cuts in state aid. Fast-growing enrollments are stressing some districts. Voters say they're taxed out, and even if they weren't, they want higher test scores and proof that their money is wisely spent.

An anti-tax mood was evident at the polls earlier this month. Ohio voters Aug. 3 rejected more than three-fourths of 103 school tax levies and bond issues for operating costs and new buildings.

That's the lowest passage rate for school issues in five years. Nineteen local districts have issues on the Nov. 2 ballot.

Kentucky schools don't rely as heavily on voter levies, but in districts across the region, booster clubs and parents are raising funds to keep programs going that otherwise might die.

To some residents, it seems only fair that public schools share more of the financial burden.

"I have no problem with paying taxes so that schools can be maintained," says Rebecca Farthing,a Butler County resident.

"It's just that there seems to be an unfairness in asking property taxes to always increase to fund schools," she says.

Farthing, who voted against an Edgewood schools levy this month, spends $3,000 a year to send her 8-year-old son to a private school in Hamilton. After paying that and $1,500 a year in property taxes, Farthing says, she's maxed out.

Anti-tax sentiment is heartbreaking to Jeni Brodsky, a nurse whose two kids attend Fairfield schools.

Like many parents, she's scrambling to find transportation for her children and a way to pay hundreds of dollars in new sports and club fees.

"It just makes me really, really sad," she says. "I will do whatever is in my power to make kids successful, but I feel really bad that lots of kids aren't getting the opportunities they deserve."

Larger classes

Fewer teachers translate into larger class sizes, fewer classes and fewer subject choices. Sycamore cut 42 of 500 teachers, meaning junior high students won't be taking Latin this year. Some classes at Sycamore's E.H. Greene Intermediate will have close to 30 students this year.

Home economics won't be available to Taylor High School students in the Three Rivers district, which cut 12 of 140 teachers. Students who are behind academically in grades K-5 won't get small-group instruction.

Fourth-grade classes averaged 18 students in Three Rivers last year, but will jump to 21-22 this year. Eight fourth-grade classes were merged into seven.

At the sprawling Lakota schools, 29 of 1,102 teaching jobs were cut, despite an estimated increase of 445 students this year. Cherokee Elementary Principal Elizabeth Spurlock worries about growing class sizes - up to 29 fourth-graders per class this year, compared to 24 last year.

The impact of increased class size is not just more papers to grade, she says. Good teaching is about getting to know children individually to tailor each student's academics, she says.

"Even communication with parents, that's more people to build relationships with and all of that takes time," Spurlock says.

"There's the physical space. There's so many things teachers build in classroom for kids to do hands-on kinds of things. The more kids you have, the less space you have to do those things that make learning real."

5,000 kids lose busing

More than 5,000 students in Edgewood, Fairfield, Three Rivers and Winton Woods will have to walk or find rides to school, because their bus service has been cut.

All four districts eliminated high school busing. Edgewood and Three Rivers also will stop busing elementary students who live less than two miles from school.

Three Rivers superintendent Rhonda Bohannon expects the worst this year when 568 kids find other ways to school, starting Monday.

"We anticipate congested roads, traffic jams with cars waiting to pull into school parking lots and more students seeking parking on the streets, because the school parking lot at Taylor (High School) can't accommodate an increase in parking," she says.

The high school organized a ride-share message board on the district Web site to help parents and students find carpools.

Among those who scrambled to find other transportation were Matthew and Tonya Graham, who have daughters in high school and middle school. The Miami Heights family lives 1.95 miles from the middle school, so they lost the bus to the middle school, too.

Tonya Graham takes her girls to school, but they need rides home. Originally, the Grahams thought they'd have to change work schedules and rely on friends and grandparents to take turns driving each day.

As it turned out, their niece's work schedule changed, so she can take the girls home every day.

"I hope that the levy passes," Graham says of the district's Nov. 2 tax vote, the district's second attempt this year.

"When they had the levy on the ballot before, I wasn't able to make it to vote. But I will this time."

More fees for sports, clubs

Pay-to-play fees, meanwhile, are increasingly common - and more costly.

Ross schools increased fees this year from $25 to $150 per student per sport, while Three Rivers increased fees from $25 to $125 in high school and $10 to $50 in middle school.

North Bend resident Carla Beasley says it's a struggle.

Her seventh-grade son Tyler is playing football for Three Rivers Middle School, which cost $50. Cleats were another $60. Other school fees jumped from around $70 to $93.

"It makes things tighter," Beasley says. "But I do what I gotta do. Come basketball season, I'm sure it's going to be another fee. And he has mentioned cross-country. I'm like, 'One sport at a time.' "

Fairfield started a pay-to-play program for the first time this year. Each high school sport costs $630 per student. Middle-school sports are $430, band is $350 and drama, clubs and music are $260each.

As a result, participation in Fairfield high school football dropped 35 percent - from 115 kids to about 75.

Besides the freshman team, Fairfield also dropped two middle-school football teams, the high school girls reserve tennis team, two seventh-grade girls volleyball teams and tennis for seventh and eighth grade, athletic director Eric Higgins says.

"Some of the athletes' families applying for aid didn't qualify," Higgins says. "And they just couldn't afford to pay."

Higgins says he worries that kids will miss out on the camaraderie of sports and the lessons they learn, such as punctuality and team work.

Fairfield resident Jeni Brodsky, who helped develop a grass-roots group to raise money to revive the sports and activities, says she might have to pay more than $1,800 this year. Her high school son played three sports and was on student government last year.

"If (pay-to-play) continues, he'll have to choose between activities," she says. "It would be hard to pay $630 times three sports."

And then there's her daughter, who is entering seventh grade and wants to be involved, too. Brodsky pays for 12-year-old Lindsay to swim outside of school, but had to say 'no' when it came to cross-country.

This is not the year to try it, she told her daughter. But Brodsky says she's considering working extra nursing shifts to cover the bill.

"I believe in public education," she says. "I believe our children are the future of our community, and I feel we're selling them short.

"And it breaks my heart."


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