Thursday, March 6, 2003

Taft takes $140 million from schools

Educators scrambling to make up for lost money

By Spencer Hunt
Enquirer Columbus Bureau

COLUMBUS - Saying he had no choice, Gov. Bob Taft on Wednesday cut $140 million in state aid to Ohio schools and universities to balance the state budget.

Greater Cincinnati classrooms will lose $16.5 million, according to statistics from the governor's budget office. In the wake of that news, angry area school leaders talked about cutting staff salaries, benefits and supplies for teachers and janitors, as well as asking voters to raise property taxes sooner instead of later.

"It's a real betrayal," said Cincinnati Public Schools Treasurer Mike Geoghegan, who noted that just last year lawmakers passed a $1.4 billion plan intended to end the state's historic school funding lawsuit.

"The governor's action today signified that they want us to rely more heavily on property taxes, which is almost in direct contradiction," he said.

Taft's decision also comes over the objections of lawmakers who argued that other areas of state government should suffer cuts before education.

The governor put the blame for his cuts on lawmakers' refusal to raise taxes. He said they didn't even suggest other cuts that could be made in a budget balancing bill they passed in February.

"The legislature has given me no other option," Taft said. "This is a very sad and a very painful day for me as governor."

Ohio lawmakers also must deal with Taft's $49.2 billion two-year budget that would take effect July 1. Taft wants lawmakers to raise $3.1 billion in new taxes to help fill a $4 billion shortfall in revenues.

The current-year reductions come with just four months left in the school year, at a time most districts have already determined their spending.

Taft first threatened to cut school funding in late January in an attempt to push lawmakers to raise alcohol and cigarette taxes. The tax increases were a key element in the governor's plan to erase a $720 million deficit in the budget that ends June 30.

Instead of raising taxes, House and Senate Republicans passed a bill that fell $143 million short of the mark - basically daring the governor to make good on his ultimatum.

The school cuts Taft ordered Wednesday were, in many cases, less than his January estimates. Cincinnati Public Schools, for example will lose $2.2 million instead of $2.9 million.

Elsewhere in the region, Lakota schools in Butler County will lose $765,000 instead of $1 million and Mason schools in Warren County will lose $387,000 instead of $495,00.

Tim Keen, Taft's deputy budget director, said the governor needed to cut $100 million from schools instead of $136 million. He said he tried to limit cuts to no more than 2.5 percent of a district's state funds or an amount equal to $51.50 per student, whichever was lower.

That didn't make school officials feel any better. CPS officials said they were looking to trim the district's $437 million budget to have the least impact on the quality of education.

"We're not going to cut services to kids and we're not going to be cutting staff," Superintendent Alton Frailey said. "But we probably won't be hiring any more staff."

The district will first examine cuts in supply budgets, possibly including items such as paper, computer technology or custodial supplies, Geoghegan said.

He said the lost money may mean tapping further into the district's cash balance. The sooner that money is gone, the sooner the district has to consider asking voters to support a tax levy.

David Horine, superintendent for the Mount Healthy Schools in Hamilton County, said he felt "frustration and dismay" about the district's $187,000 budget cut.

"After having three straight levies fail, there doesn't seem to be any good solution in sight for our residents and our students," he said.

"We've been making reductions in our budget here, and we continue to make more, and on top of that we get this."

At the Hamilton City School District in Butler County, salaries and benefits will likely be the first areas affected by its $458,000 budget cut, said Joni Copas, district spokeswoman.

"It's going to be extremely difficult to look at an already pretty tight budget to see where you can cut," Copas said. "We've always looked at that and tried to be frugal and good stewards of our community's money."

Copas said the district had feared losing $600,000 to $1 million.

"Now it's just a half million," she said. "Great, huh?"

At the University of Cincinnati, officials said they are just now beginning to look at how the cuts will affect their budget.

"It is late in the year and obviously it's going to be a big dent," said UC President Joseph Steger. "We're probably going to have to shut down programs would be my guess in the long run. We don't want to, but we've got no choice."

Miami University officials think they are in a better position to cope. Two years ago all divisions were asked to make permanent budget cuts that added up to more than $1.5 million. That included not filling vacant positions.

"Having two years to plan has made this new cut a lot less painful," said Richard Norman, vice president for finance and business affairs.

Taft warned university leaders not to try to dig deeper into students' pockets to make up their losses.

"I strongly request that (university) trustees do not, I repeat, do not, impose mid-year tuition increases on their students," Taft said.

In Columbus, lawmakers continued to object to the cuts. Sen. Marc Dann, D-Liberty, even proposed a bill intended to restore the lost money.

"The governor has chosen to balance the budget on the backs of the elderly, children and basically the future of Ohio," Dann said. "This is tantamount to an attack on the most vulnerable segments of our population."

Taft said he didn't think there was much lawmakers could do to block the cuts and repeated that they could have suggested other areas to cut, but didn't. That prompted GOP lawmakers to defend their actions.

Rep. Gary Cates, R-West Chester and the No. 2 leader in the House, said Republicans wanted to wait until mid-April to see if a tax increase was really necessary.

"I think the legislature put forth a reasonable and responsible plan," he said. "We felt that it wasn't necessary for the governor to make these cuts."

The governor said he didn't believe the economy would rebound between now and April 15.

"We have to act now," he said. "The longer you wait the less flexibility you have to balance the budget."

In addition to education cuts, the governor also ordered a $1.8 million cut to Passport, a state program that helps elderly citizens live in their homes instead of nursing homes.

He also announced another $1.5 million in cuts that will affect alcohol treatment and job creation programs.

Taft estimated that the cuts will mean 150 fewer seniors will be able to enroll in Passport each month through June 30. He said 712 fewer people will receive treatment for their addictions and that as many as 500 new jobs will be lost to other states.

"I know full well that connected to each of these programs are real faces and real stories, and real Ohioans whose lives will be adversely affected," the governor said.

"I have a constitutional duty to balance the state's budget, and, today, I am acting to carry out that duty."

Jennifer Mrozowski, Kristina Goetz, Maggie Downs and Patrick Crowley contributed to this report.


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