Saturday, February 27, 1999

Levies aren't the answer, educators say


Most agree state must rethink school funding formulas

BY RICHELLE THOMPSON and CHRISTINE WOLFF
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Cooks can dress up lima beans and liver with a twig of parsley and some fancy seasoning, but it's still lima beans and liver.

        That's what state lawmakers did with the unpalatable school funding formula, Cincinnati-area school officials said Friday. They tweaked a system that relies primarily on property taxes and was ruled inequitable by the courts, but they never changed the core problems.

        Perry County Common Pleas Judge Linton Lewis Jr. agreed and threw out the state legislature's plan to redesign school funding.

        Legislators “have done nothing substantial helping school systems with facility problems, and it's not just Cincinnati that's hurting. It's all over the state,” said Greg Smith, second vice president for the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers, a union that represents 4,000 teachers and office personnel in Cincinnati Public Schools.

        Ordering the state to make more substantive changes “might mean (kids) will have a decent place to go to school,” Mr. Smith said. “It also might mean they can count on programs in the future instead of having times of booms and bust, when, if you pass a levy, you have a music teacher. And if you can't, you don't.”

        Every school administrator contacted by The Cincinnati Enquirer on Friday applauded the decision to send lawmakers back to square one.

        “What the state did helped but didn't solve the problems,” said Albert Porter, superintendent of the rural Adams County/Ohio Valley School District and a member of the steering committee that launched the coalition of 500 Ohio school districts that brought the suit against the state in 1991.

        “I felt all along that (legislators) had not crafted a remedy that was satisfactory. The state needs to set up a system that determines what a good education is, set a price tag and then make sure each district can do it.”

        Adams County, the bulk of his 603-square-mile district, has the lowest per-capita income of all Ohio counties, and residents “don't feel able to vote higher taxes.”

        On the flip side, even though the recent reforms gave the already wealthy Sycamore Community School District an additional $400,000 in state money this year, Superintendent Bruce Armstrong said lawmakers haven't come up with the right solution.

        “The idea wasn't to help Sycamore. It was to help the poor-property-wealth districts,” Mr. Armstrong said. “I don't particularly want to give (the money) back, but at the same time, I certainly understand that the formula needs to be readjusted so that it accomplishes certain goals.”

        The quality of public education shouldn't depend on how wealthy the district is or in which part of Ohio a child lives, said Loren Wilson, superintendent of Milford Exempted Village School District in northeast Clermont County. “We shouldn't be voting on children's education,” he said.

        One major problem with the school-funding system is that school districts must turn to voters every few years to ask for a new levy, school officials said.

        “What I really resent, because it tears the community apart, is going on the ballot every time you run out of money,” Mr. Wilson said. “And invariably, you're going to have to go on the ballot because of the way school funding is done now.”

        But Maineville mother Roseann Siderits doesn't see why schools need more money. They have plenty, she said. The real problem is mismanagement and skewed priorities by individual districts, she said.

        The original lawsuit was “another plot to suck more money from Ohio taxpayers into the public-school system,” said Mrs. Siderits, whose three boys attend private schools but whose property-tax dollars support Kings Local School District.

        “It is sad to see school buildings crumbling,” Mrs. Siderits said. “But there's no excuse for it.

        “I would suggest they cut some of their administrative costs to pay for textbooks and school buildings,” she said. “We need to get a lot smarter about how we're spending our public-school dollars.”

Ohio fails school-funding test
Chronology of Ohio school funding
- Levies aren't the answer, educators say
What the state did, didn't do



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