August 28, 2014

Elyria
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Local leaders meet school funding plan with reserved optimism

Gov. John Kasich speaks Thursday at a special meeting of the Buckeye Association of School Administrators.

In a state whose Supreme Court has declared numerous times that the school funding system is unconstitutional, Gov. John Kasich’s announcement Thursday of a dramatic change in how schools are funded was met with cautious optimism by local districts’ leaders.

The proposal, which is expected to reach upward of $7 billion next year, is the governor’s first major step toward removing the disparity in available revenue that exists between affluent districts and their less-wealthy counterparts.

It aims to bridge the funding gap in districts while also giving charter schools an equal share of state funding and rewarding innovation in the classroom.

Kasich, who campaigned two years ago on a pledge to change education in the state, unveiled the plan Thursday to a group of superintendents and then later at a town-hall meeting streamed live over the Internet.

“This is a plan that says that every student in any part of the state, regardless of what kind of district they come from, should be given the resources to be able to compete with a child across the state,” Kasich said.

Seeking parity

Columbia Schools Superintendent Graig Bansek said it’s encouraging to hear talk of parity among districts.

“By the way they are saying they will do it, it would mean that every student is treated equally and every school district will ultimately be treated equally,” he said. “I definitely believe we need to do something in the state of Ohio, as in the Legislature and governor, to change funding and curb levies in this state.”

Bansek, whose district passed both a permanent improvement levy and bond issue in the past three years, said Columbia will be back on the ballot in May with a 5.5-mill levy for more funding.

“When it’s all said and done, I would have cut 25 percent of our budget in four years,” he said. “With the loss of state funding, tangible personal property taxes and delinquent taxes, it’s wearing on school districts to figure out how to make up those funds.”

The most promising aspect of the plan also seems to be the most complicated.

The funding formula looks at the property values and incomes of communities and ranks districts from wealthiest to poorest. The formula then assures that every school district that levies property taxes will generate the same as districts with a $250,000 per-pupil property tax base. It means districts like Elyria and Lorain, where a mill raises a few hundred dollars, will be funded on par with a district like Avon Lake, which can raise thousands.

“I’m going to try to be encouraged and say we should give new ideas a chance,” said Elyria Superintendent Paul Rigda. “But the devil is in the details, and there were not a lot of details. There was enough information to understand the concept, but not enough to know what the numbers will be like for Elyria.”

Disappointment, optimism

The short-on-specifics plan was seen as nothing more than another disappointment by key Democrats in the state.

Ohio Democratic Chairman Chris Redfern said the plan mentioned nothing about restoring the $1.8 billion in education cuts Kasich made in 2011.

“It’s alarming that Gov. Kasich drafted this proposal in secret, without the input of education stakeholders, and chose to make permanent his historic 2011 cuts that slashed nearly $1.8 billion from students and schools around the state,” Redfern said in a statement. “Kasich’s education plan guarantees that the state will continue to withhold funding, local taxpayers will see even more levies in addition to the

$1 billion they’ve already faced, and our children’s opportunities will be compromised in the future.”

With a levy on the ballot in a few short days, the announcement of a new funding plan that provides no details could hurt the Midview school district.

Superintendent John Kuhn also went to Columbus to hear the announcement.

“We don’t want people to think the governor’s new plan for delivering funds will change the school funding method, which is a portion from the state and a large portion from local tax revenue,” he previously said.

Rigda said on first glance there appears to be some areas that could bode well for Elyria.

There is a call for special funding for the first three years a child attends school in the United States to help students not yet proficient in English. Rigda said the number of English learners is increasing in the district, particularly among Asian and Hispanic populations.

There is also a caveat that provides additional funds to schools to help educate and support students with disabilities. Elyria has a large special-needs program, including programs that are dedicated to students in the autism spectrum.

“It sounds like there are several areas that might generate some additional revenue for us and we really could use it right now,” Rigda said. “But will it be enough to stop the cuts that are coming? Probably not. We needed a $4.3 million levy but are making $3 million in cuts.

“We are still $1.3 million in need, so what it might do for us is get us over this hump,” Rigda added. “I don’t know if it’s going to prevent the kind of deficit we are looking at in 2014, but it might stop the bleeding down the road.”

The level of funding for districts will not be known until next week when Kasich puts out his general budget proposal for the next two years.

“Right now, we’re optimistic. He talked about leveling the playing field, and if that’s the case, it could be good for us,” Lorain Schools Superintendent Tom Tucker said. “But we could all be singing a different tune next week. He said we won’t be, but what does that mean? Is it dollar for dollar?”

Tucker said Lorain has everything Kasich talked about helping — English-learning students, students in poverty and special-needs students. But after 35 years in education, Tucker said he has learned to wait for the details.

The details

The outline of the plan calls for $6.2 billion in basic state aid to districts and charter schools for the 2013-14 school year, a 6 percent increase over the current school year, and $6.4 billion for 2014-15, an additional 3.4 percent. Also included is $300 million for grants. The total cost of the plan will be $7.4 billion for 2013-14 and $7.7 billion for 2014-15.

“This is a huge expense,” said Richard Ross, Kasich’s director of 21st century education. “That is something that can’t be sustained, but we’re willing to work to wean our schools of their dependency.”

The funding plan does not leave out charter schools, privately operated, publicly funded schools that are options for families not pleased with the performance or atmosphere of traditional public schools. The plan calls for charters to receive base funding as well as additional money based on a student’s home district. More money per student also will be funneled to the charter schools to help pay for facilities.

For the charters

Gerald Preseren, executive director of Constellation Schools, which operates three schools in the county for elementary and middle school students, said any help with facilities would be greatly appreciated.

While it’s common for Constellation to operate in former public school buildings, it does so because it doesn’t have the luxury of tapping into property taxes for bond issues to build new buildings.

“We are never in favor of taking money away from public districts, but one thing we lacked was money for facilities,” he said. “We have long believed there should be equality in funding, which has been a struggle in this state for years.”

Preseren said he believes Kasich, who is widely known as a proponent of charter schools, sees such programs as options for good reason.

“Especially for some of them, like ours, that have and continue to perform well and sometimes in contrast to the districts we reside in,” he said. “We are viable competitors, and why shouldn’t we have a little competition if it ultimately increases the value of educations for students?”

Contact Lisa Roberson at 329-7121 or lroberson@chroniclet.com.