Tuesday, February 11, 2003

Educators, parents protest school funding cuts

By Cindy Schroeder
and Erica Solvig
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Greater Cincinnati educators and parents are burning up phone lines, firing off e-mails and even swarming their state capitals to protest looming school funding cuts.

In Kentucky, about 15,000 parents, teachers and other supporters of public schools will march on Frankfort on Wednesday to draw attention to education's funding woes. Some school systems, including four in Northern Kentucky, are even closing for the day.

"I feel the lawmakers have to come forth with some alternative funding," said Christy Troehler, a parent of two children in the Ludlow Independent School District.

"What these children are exposed to in the classroom today will determine who's going to be taking care of Kentucky 30 years from now."

Similar concerns are being voiced in Ohio, where Gov. Bob Taft has stressed that the General Assembly must address the $720 million budget shortfall by the end of the month.

If not, Greater Cincinnati's schools and universities could stand to lose $20.8 million by June 30.

The budget crunch has brought a "steady stream of calls" to Taft's office, spokesman Orest Holubec said.

In Kentucky, educators and parents from 90 of the state's 176 public school districts are expressing their frustration Wednesday on the steps of the state Capitol.

School systems that are closing for the rally - including the Northern Kentucky districts of Covington, Dayton, Ludlow and Owen and Gallatin counties - will make up the day later.

This is the largest such education rally in at least a decade.

Many Kentuckians feel they have something to protect in the state's educational system. Before the Kentucky Education Reform Act was adopted in 1990, Kentucky schools ranked 49th in per pupil funding, just above Mississippi. Since then they have climbed to 28th, and educators and parents say they don't want to see the gains of the past decade wiped out by Kentucky's budget crisis.

Butler County's Edgewood is making its voice heard as well. If the district loses the proposed $265,000, , a pre-school program starting this month won't be expanded in the fall and could even be eliminated, said Superintendent Tom York.

"I've had so many calls from staff members that I'm composing an e-mail to send out letting people know who to contact,'' he said.

"This would put a halt to our technology plan or any kind of growth issues."

In Mason, the nearly $500,000 that's on the state's chopping block pays for 21 custodians or 19 bus drivers or 19 secretaries or 15 teachers, said Superintendent Kevin Bright. Forty percent of the district's funding comes from the state.

Educators from Fairfield Schools have already been to Columbus to speak out against the cutting education halfway through the budget year.

"We ask not just those in education but those on the home front as well to join us," said Treasurer J. Scott Gooding. "We're screaming for a simplified system to fund schools."

So is Superintendent Loren Wilson of New Richmond Schools, who calls the entire funding system "a mess." He plans to write letters to legislators about the district's $108,000 cut, as well as the cuts for schools statewide.

More letters are expected from Princeton, where the district is going to distribute legislator contact information to staff and parents this month.

Sue Taylor, president of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers, already has called area legislators to express her concerns. Teachers from the district, which could lose nearly $3 million, also have been asked to e-mail lawmakers from their personal accounts.

Besides the phone calls, Holubec said Taft had a "productive meeting" with representatives from about a dozen educational associations and unions regarding the budget issues last week.

And shortly after the State of the State Address, seven of the 11 school treasurers from Butler County went to Columbus and urged lawmakers not to cut school funding this year or next, said Treasurer Alan Hutchinson from Lakota, which stands to lose just over $1 million.

"Cutting school funding is the last thing Gov. Taft wants to do," Holubec said.

"But without that new revenue, the governor cannot save schools from cuts."

Kentucky is estimating a budget shortfall of $394 million for the fiscal year that starts July 1. Gov. Paul Patton has asked all school districts to prepare a contingency plan for 5.2 percent cuts for that period - a cut that state Department of Education officials say actually amounts to 6.6 percent because of untouchable items in school budgets, such as teacher retirement contributions.

It's forced at least two Northern Kentucky districts - Kenton and Campbell counties - to consider closing schools.

The budget crisis is like a rally call for parents such as Scott Bond, who has three children attending Deer Park schools.

"We'll do whatever we need to do," he said. "If that takes letters or calling - absolutely. ... We would like the kids in the community to maintain the things that are available at their schools."

Sue Kiesewetter and Jennifer Mrozowski contributed to this story. E-mail cschroeder@enquirer.com and esolvig@enquirer.com

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