Tuesday, June 22, 1999

Schools lose $5M in state funding

Lawmakers cut magnet contribution

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Three months ago, Cincinnati Public Schools leaders said they probably would ask district voters for a $32.4 million tax increase this November — barring any surprises in the state budget.

        School board members on Monday said that dreaded surprise arose when state lawmakers decided earlier this month not to give CPS $5 million of the $8 million it spends annually on its popular magnet programs.

        So CPS officials likely will tack that $5 million onto the $32.4 million tax increase they projected in March would be needed to cover inflation. Although levy estimates are preliminary, that would boost the annual tax bill for a $75,000 house by about $160.

        “I don't think it's humanly possible to find an extra $5 million in our budget,” Superintendent Steven Adamowski said Monday at a daylong strategic planning retreat with board members at Mayerson Academy in Corryville.

        “This is a royal pain in the neck. It's a terrible thing at this point in time.”

        CPS finances are particularly lean since officials agreed earlier this year to trim $20 million from their 1999-2000 budget after forgoing a tax hike in May, Mr. Adamowski added.

        “I do not know if it has sunk in with anyone what a hardship it is for a district that already has wrestled with cutting $20 million from its budget to face another $5 million cut,” board member Harriet Russell said.

        The state historically has funded the bulk of CPS' magnet programs, which started in the 1970s under desegregation efforts. But CPS administrators have had to lobby harder in recent years to convince lawmakers to continue funding the programs, which no longer are used for racial balance.

        More than 13,000 of the district's 47,200 students are enrolled in magnet programs.

        CPS officials don't want to cut the programs because magnet students traditionally have far higher test scores than their peers at neighborhood schools. Demand for the program also soars every year; about 1,900 students were turned away from magnet programs last year because of space constraints.

        School board members complained about the timing of the lawmakers' decision.

        Officials can't get the $5 million from salaries and transportation, two of the district's biggest costs. State-imposed deadlines to lay off teachers and administrators were in March and April, and transportation contracts were completed in the spring.

        Rather, administrators are counting on CPS Treasurer Richard Gardner's projection that schools overestimated their 1999-2000 enrollment by about 1,000 students.

        If so, that's an extra $3 million that would return to district coffers — money that could be used toward the $5 million in magnet funds.

        The district also may be able to use “contingency funds” that it's required by state law to set aside for unanticipated building repairs and enrollment changes. (Officials speculate that hundreds of students could leave CPS for charter schools this fall.)

        Administrators must be prepared to slash $2 million from the district budget if voters reject the levy or the contingency money is inaccessible, Mr. Adamowski warned.

        “That would not be a pretty picture,” he said. “But a $2 million cut is better than a $5 million cut.”

        Board members expressed frustration with their finances. Board member Catherine Ingram suggested postponing some spending, such as technology needs.

        “All we're trying to do is limp from point A to point B,” board member Lynn Marmer agreed.

        Board members in January and February discussed seeking a tax increase of up to $92 million to fund all their needs, which include inflationary increases, equity between neighborhood and magnet programs and building repairs.

        But public protests prompted them to reconsider. In March, Mr. Adamowski and board members suggested a $32.4 million, or 6-mill, increase would be feasible.

        If the levy passed, officials vowed to reinstate half the $20 million in cuts they made in the 1999-2000 budget. Monday, board members said it wasn't clear how the unanticipated $5 million loss in magnet money would affect that promise.

        Despite the loss, CPS is one of several districts that would benefit from higher limits on annual increases in state aid.

        CPS stands to gain $259.2 million in basic state aid during the next two years, about $2.4 million more than the House-approved version of the budget.

        Under the Senate-approved budget, CPS would get $122.8 million next year (a 10.5 percent increase) and $136.4 million the following year (an 11 percent increase). Those figures are subject to change.


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