Tuesday, June 17, 2003

Schools try to cope with Ohio budget cuts

Administrators tighten belts, push for levies to offset shortfall

By Connie Mabin
The Associated Press

CLEVELAND - Orrville Superintendent Jeff Patterson has been busy lately trying to cut his $12 million budget and persuade voters to pay more taxes.

Among other things, he's had to give up on dreams of a full-day kindergarten program he said would improve pupil performance.

"I never got into this position thinking I would be a fund-raiser," Patterson said. "The budget problems are holding us back."

All Ohio public schools were asked to trim spending by a combined $100 million this school year to help the state fill a hole in the $44 billion state budget. The Legislature had rejected Gov. Bob Taft's proposal to close a $720 million deficit by raising taxes on cigarettes and alcohol.

As Senate-House budget negotiators worked Monday to finish the next budget, Taft was trying to restore the $100 million and increase funding by 7 percent, said Taft spokesman Orest Holubec.

Rising teacher health insurance costs, shrinking enrollments, the loss of local businesses and concern over an upcoming tight state budget are complicating the work of school administrators planning for the fall.

"It's very tough times for schools," said Ron Lindsey, superintendent of Sheffield-Sheffield Lake Schools, about 25 miles west of Cleveland. The K-12 district of 2,000 students will lay off half its 16 bus drivers because it can't afford to pay them, he said.

Orrville schools are raising student fees. Springfield public schools eliminated 69 of 750 teaching positions in April. Columbus area schools have cut general educational development, or GED, classes.

Ashtabula Area City Schools special-education teacher Valerie Cornelius said Monday that she urged her school to first review administrative and sports budgets before cutting programs or laying off teachers, as the district has said it would.

"I just want them to consider alternatives," said Cornelius, who has worked for the school for eight years.

"If you cut teachers, the effect is more kids in your class - and that's not good for the students, and it's not good for the teachers," she said.

In Sheffield, the state cuts were magnified because voters twice rejected a proposed $2.8 million tax levy.

Repairs have been put off and teacher development has been scaled back. Without the tax increase - or with more state cuts - football and other athletics, classroom programs and teachers' jobs could be next to go.

"Everything's on the table," Lindsey said.

Lawmakers are trying to fill at least a $1.1 billion shortfall for the $49 billion two-year budget set to take effect July 1.

Some ideas in the proposed school funding formula - such as changing the way student enrollment is calculated - worry Patterson.

Lawmakers have proposed that districts report attendance monthly, replacing the three-year enrollment average used now. The legislators believe it encourages full attendance and is a fairer way to reflect how many children are in school.

Patterson said the change would mean another loss of $300,000 to $500,000 next year in the shrinking northeast Ohio district.

The school system in the home of jam maker J.M. Smucker Co. has raised local taxes, but the increase won't take effect until January. Patterson said that means he must cut $300,000 for the upcoming school year, atop a $375,000 budget cut in the school year that just ended.

Besides raising fees, the district did not fill about a dozen jobs left vacant by retirements or resignations and has frozen hiring for the past year and a half, cut back on teacher training and delayed buying some supplies.

Lindsey also expressed frustration that he is spending so much time on budget problems.

"It infuriates me that we are trying to get levies passed as politicians rather than working on educational issues," Lindsey said. "It's not right."

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