Sunday, March 18, 2001

Funding of schools examined

District heads say system not equitable

By Lori Hayes
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Northern Kentucky opponents of the state's school funding system may finally get some attention.

        The Kentucky Department of Education is beginning a review of the way it funds schools — 11 years after the system was changed when a landmark state Supreme Court decision found the old methods unconstitutional.

        The state is hosting a panel of national school finance experts, superintendents and state legislators Wednesday at the Radisson in Covington to review its formula and make recommendations for changes.

        “It's time to look at it and see if it's working like it's supposed to,” said Lisa Gross, a spokeswoman for the Education Department. “The goal is still equity.”

        However, some local superintendents have protested for years that the new system is not equitable.

        “It wasn't fair before, but it's still not fair,” said Beechwood Superintendent Fred Bassett, one of the most vocal opponents of the state's funding system.

        Before the 1990 Kentucky Education Reform Act, every school district received the same amount of state dollars per student, regardless of how much money it received through local property taxes. So districts with low property values were bringing in much less than property-rich districts.

        To make it more fair, the state now considers districts' local tax base when divvying up dollars. Those with less local revenue get more state money.

        “It's done a great deal to equalize schools,” said Covington Superintendent Jack Moreland, who, while superintendent of Dayton Independent Schools, was one of the leaders in the lawsuit that overturned the old funding system.

        Property-poor districts are now able to provide more services for their students and pay more competitive teacher salaries, Mr. Moreland said.

        However, some property-rich districts say they're not getting enough state support.

        “The basic concepts of the formula are good,” said Fort Thomas Superintendent Larry Stinson. “A child shouldn't be denied a good education just because he lives in a property-poor district.

        “But now the reverse is happening. Our students live in a high-wealth district, and we have less to spend on education as a result of that.”

        Beechwood and Fort Thomas get some of the lowest state allocations per student because of their districts' high property values. Both have argued that, while the state has made efforts to equalize property tax revenues, the funding formula doesn't consider additional local money from permissive taxes, such as utility or occupational taxes.

        “If you're going to give a district extra money because they can't bring in as much for property taxes, you should also give a district extra money because they can't bring in as much on utility taxes,” Mr. Bassett said.

        Boone County Schools has also been lobbying the state to make changes. Fast-growing districts such as Boone are penalized, Superintendent Bryan Blavatt said.

        As local property assessments go up, state funding goes down a comparable amount. However, districts can't raise tax revenue by more than 4 percent a year without voter approval even if local assessments increase by a larger percentage.

        “The formula has not equalized but created some greater inequities,” Mr. Blavatt said. “The pendulum has swung so far that for a wealthy growth district, we're not receiving adequate funds.”

        Another common criticism: the base amount the state gives to every district, despite variances for local revenue, is inadequate.

        “The state isn't putting its share into the pie,” Mr. Stinson said. “As local property values have risen, the state's contributions have declined statewide.”

        Every district received a boost in state funding the first year of KERA. However, there have been no substantial increases since.

        Similar debates are playing out in Ohio.

        The Ohio Supreme Court declared its school funding system unconstitutional in 1991 because it was based solely on property taxes, creating disparities among the districts.

        The state has made three attempts at new funding plans since then, all rejected by the high court. There are now three competing plans to fix the problem by a court-ordered deadline of June 15.

        Kentucky officials say the superintendents' concerns are valid, and the state is receptive to change if needed. This week's discussion will be the first of many.

        However, state officials say Kentucky has made great strides in making school funding more equitable.

        Before KERA, the state ranked near the bottom in the country on average spending per student. Kentucky is now 21st.

        “This is not an issue that's going to be resolved in one day,” Ms. Gross said. “We really want to take a close look at this.”


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