Sunday, April 01, 2001

Moonshine for schools




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        Ohio has been scratching its head and wondering for years: Who in tarnation designed our ramshackle, cobbled-up, school-funding plumbing that nobody can figure out? Here's my final answer: Snuffy Smith.

        It had to be the comics page hillbilly drawn by the late, great Fred Lasswell. Snuffy and Ohio's school-finance system must be kin. The resemblance is stronger than a skunk eating onions: Both are frequently in trouble with the law; both are full of moonshine; and both have lived for years in a carpenter's night
mare that would collapse in a heap around its own leaking roof if not for a broken hoe that props up the sway-backed, tire-patched porch.

        And here's the punch-line: Gov. Bob Taft and Ohio's lawmakers want to sink another eleventy-hundred million dollars into a system that is crookeder than a barrel of snakes.

        That's as knot-headed as movin' Snuffy and Loweezy and their young-uns to Beverly Hills to live with swimming pools and movie stars. But that's another story.

        The point is, Ohio should just tear down its dilapidated school funding log cabin and start over.

        The danged thing leans like an outhouse on a mountainside: Indian Hill has property worth nearly $350,000 per student, while Mount Healthy's property is valued at about $78,000 per student. That means one mill of property taxes raises four times as much in Indian Hill.

        And that's why the Ohio Supreme Court says our school funding formula is not constitutionally equitable. The justices have a point. But their answer is possum stupid: They want to level it all out by stuffing bodacious wads of cash under the floorboards.

        We all know what happens to money under the floorboards. A few years later, Jughaid is still flunking math, the roof still leaks and Snuffy has his hand in the egg-money jar again because the mattress stash has turned up missing.

        That's the prediction from Harold “Hal” Yoder, vice president of the County Auditors Association of Ohio and Preble County Auditor.

        He says that if Ohio pours billions more into schools without changing the formula, inequities will creep back and property taxes will rise until taxpayers revolt.

        “I've been hitting my head against the wall trying to get lawmakers to listen,” he said. “But I'm not giving up.”

        Property taxpayers in about half the state's school districts are already getting burned, he says. The rollback passed in the late '70s, to keep property taxes from soaring as fast as home values, is no longer working in many suburban districts.

        Mr. Yoder explains it thisaway: When auditors jack up property values, millages are rolled back to make sure schools don't get a windfall of cash. A home sold for $100,000 might be re-valued at $130,000 — but the homeowner's income probably did not increase 30 percent. So the rollback keeps school taxes from climbing 30 percent.

        But the rollback elevator goes no lower than a 20-mill floor, Mr. Yoder says. After that, state aid shrinks and the burden on homeowners swells like a mule-kick.

        If all that makes your head ache worse than a jug of corn squeezins, it gets worse.

        “You have to understand at least 19 things to figure out your property tax bill,” Mr. Yoder said. “The school funding formula is a hundred times worse.”

        And state lawmakers have no serious plans to burn it down and start over. They want to nail on another $1.4 billion patch to settle the lawsuit by schools.

        It just goes to show that Ohio's leaders are much closer to the funny pages than most folks thought.

        Snuffy Smith, who invented “horsefeathers” and gave us the “heebie-jeebies,” would love it. In Ohio, every day is April Fool's Day.

        E-mail: pbronson@enquirer.com. Past columns at Enquirer.com/columns/bronson

       



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