Friday, September 07, 2001

Ruling falls short, school officials say

It fails to solve property tax questions

By Cindy Kranz
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Although the Ohio Supreme Court ordered the state to increase school funding, local educators expect they'll continue to rely on the grace of voters to provide a quality education for all students.

        “Ultimately, we're not going to be any better off than what we've been in the past,” said Thomas Richey, superintendent at Winton Woods City Schools. “Many districts will be forced to go back to their communities to pay for the rising costs of education. That's a great disservice.”

        Dr. Richey said he thinks “political expediency won out over the real issues of the ... case.”

[photo] Kamali Abdullah, a junior at the School for the Creative and Performing Arts, dances during a class Thursday.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
| ZOOM |
        He said the court appears to have ignored its own directives from the last time it rendered an opinion on school funding last year.

        Officials at Cincinnati Public Schools say the additional state school funding mandated by the Supreme Court is certainly an improvement.

        But they said it won't do much to reduce the district's reliance on local property taxes, which was at the heart of the court case.

        Property taxes now account for about 57 percent of the school district's funding and that probably won't change much, said district spokeswoman Jan Leslie.

        Cincinnati Public Schools — which was among the coalition of 550 districts suing the state — is considered one of the wealthier districts in the state even though 65 percent of its students are considered poor because they qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

        Sue Taylor, president of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers, said she was disappointed.

        “It's very discouraging the inequities are going to be perpetuated. It doesn't appear the students of Cincinnati Public Schools are going to be experiencing any gains in terms of the level of funding.”

        The reliance on property taxes will continue to force property-rich, income-poor districts like CPS to make choices on what services, supplies and support they can offer to students, she said.

        “But if you look at the big picture, most citizens should conclude we have a stronger system of school finance,” said Steven Adamowski, Cincinnati superintendent.

        Ralph Shell, superintendent of Little Miami School District in Warren County, knew the court's ruling wouldn't make much difference for his district.

        Little Miami's funding level is 50 percent state and 50 percent local. “We're not wealthy. We're not poor,” Mr. Shell said. “I didn't expect any dramatic change in operating money for us. My main concern is for facilities.”

        The district's three elementary schools were built in 1913 and 1938. While they're in good shape for their age, he said, they lack sprinkling systems and handicapped accessibility in all areas.

        The state has set aside more than $10 billion for construction and renovation of school buildings. Of the state's 612 public school districts, Little Miami ranks 403rd in line to receive a piece of the pie. And the district isn't even eligible for the money until 2011.

        “Our facilities are very adequate, and they're in good shape because the board has put a lot of local dollars in them,” he said. “We're not teaching and learning in facilities that are in disrepair. However, we're so far down on the list, we'll have to continue to take care of our own needs.”

        His district will ask voters next year to renew an emergency levy that was first passed in 1992 and renewed in 1997. What's more, he eventually expects bond issues for new buildings or renovations will be on the ballot for voter approval.

        David Horine, superintendent of the Mount Healthy City School District, said the court ruling didn't solve some of the problems. “The phantom revenue issue is still out there as big as ever.”

        When property values go up, school districts get less money from the state, yet a state law passed in 1978 does not allow local property taxes to increase with a jump in property values.

        “That's been one of the big problems with the whole funding system,” Mr. Horine said. “There's no inflationary growth built into the local taxes that we receive. That's what causes us to go back to voters for tax levies.”

        This ruling, though, will make levies a tougher sell, he said.

        “I think we're going to have to educate the public that this didn't solve our problems. The state's point of view will be that it did solve them. ... That's going to make it that much tougher to pass a levy when we need one.”

       Jennifer Mrozowski of the Enquirer contributed to this report.

Decision could cost state hundreds of millions more
GOP Justices Pfeifer, Douglas change stands
- Ruling falls short, school officials say
Written opinions tell how the court thinks


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