Sunday, July 30, 2000

SUBURBAN SCHOOLS - Rating your levies

A Special Section

By Linda Cagnetti
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Schools and taxes are a potent political stew — especially in Ohio, where there are 611 independent local school districts. Battles over funding and local control are still hot and disputed after a decade of lawsuits and legislation.

        Meanwhile, public schools depend on local voters to approve property tax levies to operate. With 49 different districts in southwest Ohio's four counties, property tax levies show up somewhere every election day. On Aug. 8, three Hamilton County districts are asking voters for more money to operate schools. More levies will come in November.

Suburban Schools
Chart: Schools by the numbers
What it means to you
St. Bernard-Elmwood
Three Rivers
        We understand that districts have different students, problems, community priorities and resources. We know most people will pay higher taxes for schools if they believe they're getting good value for their money.

        Our “levy report cards” aim to help readers do that. Our recommendations are based on more than two dozen performance, spending and other indicators. Many are now part of Ohio's new district report cards; other data is tax and other records, interviews, and a questionnaire answered by officials in each district. Finances, test scores and tax numbers are confusing, controversial and often difficult to get and interpret. Schools have little control over some factors that affect students' performance and over resources. But all schools are in the sole business of educating children. It's important to ask how schools are handling such an important job that consumes so many tax dollars.

        State mandates on minimum standards are forcing districts to pay more attention to basic academic achievement. In fiscal matters, new state rules are forcing districts to budget “set asides” for maintenance, textbooks and emergencies.

        Each Ohio district now is graded by the state on 27 minimum criteria to be considered effective. These include attendance, graduation rate and proficiency test results. They're ranked “effective” if they achieve state standards on 26 or more criteria; “continuous improvement district” for 14 to 25; “academic watch” for achieving 3 to 13; and in “academic emergency” for 0 to 8. Districts must then develop a written Continuous Improvement Plan (CIP) to address gaps, specify how they'll be corrected and how to measure if they've succeeded. The next “test” (for the public) is whether these plans will be implemented as promised or left on the shelf.

        School tax levies are among the most important and controversial decisions local voters make. Our levy editorials aim to give readers a second-opinion and more information to help them make up their own minds. If your district is not included today, it will be the next time it has an operating levy on the ballot.

        People want their schools to succeed. Good schools deserve support; substandard ones should be challenged to improve. All deserve public scrutiny to help ensure children get the best education we can provide.