As many as 194 Ohio school districts have levies on the ballot on Tuesday, 123 of them seeking new money for facilities or operations. Whether they come from small, suburban districts or large urban systems, the requests for additional funds argue the same economic dynamics: Property tax revenues have dipped sharply since the real estate collapse; changes in state laws have reduced the take from business taxes; federal stimulus funds have expired; and cutbacks in state school funding have left budget gaps that districts are unable to close simply by slashing local budgets.
In the districts in Summit County on the ballot — Barberton, Hudson, Nordonia Hills, Norton, Stow-Munroe Falls, Tallmadge, Twinsburg, Coventry and Woodridge — school boards have laid out the challenges such financial realities pose. In many cases, they have taken aggressive measures to reduce costs. But few districts in Northeast Ohio present the difficulties more starkly than the Cleveland Metropolitan School District.
The district seeks a hefty 15-mill levy. The request culminates an intense effort led by Mayor Frank Jackson that found the teachers union, business and civic leaders, foundations and state legislators all collaborating this past year to restructure the school system, with the tax-averse Gov. John Kasich voicing support for the tax increase.
Even as enrollment plummets in the district, down to 43,000 in 2010 from 73,000 in 1996, Cleveland spends $15,000 per student, higher than the $10,700 state average. A recent analysis by the Plain Dealer offered little surprise about the major contributing factors to the high expense. Evident in Cleveland are the challenges of Ohio’s public schools writ large — in particular the problems with which the larger urban districts contend.
The burden of poverty is inescapable. All of Cleveland’s students are considered eligible for free and reduced-price meals. The district serves large numbers of students who are not proficient in English. It enrolls a higher percentage than the state average of students with disabilities and special needs. It should come as little surprise that the cost of education is high to provide a wide range of additional supports — the extra programs and services, the teachers, staff and aides — for students who arrive at school at such disadvantage.