An irony confronting school officials across Ohio is that a Statehouse that requires them to project district budget plans five years into the future itself shuffles the deck once or twice every two years in drawing the state budget. One consequence is that drafting school spending plans becomes an extended exercise in uncertainty.
Question marks hover over the primary sources of money as policymakers shift funding focus and allocations and favorable responses to local levy requests are not guaranteed. All too often, districts lack assurance of financial stability, which is essential if schools are to stick with effective programs and personnel over the period of years it takes to establish a culture of excellence.
John Kasich has not described himself as Ohio’s “education governor” (yet), but he has said often enough that he aims to drive policies that direct the most education money into actual teaching and learning. He would make his mark pushing “common sense for Ohio’s classrooms.”
The governor has kicked off the biennial budgeting process with school funding proposals that now serve as a backdrop for financial projections and decisions individual districts must make. If the Akron Public Schools in any way is representative of districts across the state, its budget challenges will serve well enough to illustrate how financial uncertainty is forcing schools to take measures that run counter to “common sense,” even as they are challenged to achieve excellence everywhere.
As things stand, the Akron district faces a $16 million shortfall this year, having already cut more than $19 million out of its operating budget. But in a way, Akron has been more fortunate than other districts in that last fall, voters approved new operating funds for the school system, persuaded it had done what needed doing to cut expenses. That is, it had laid off teachers, plus administrative and support staff, cut programs and closed school buildings, among other steps.
At the same time as the school board made the case for new money, it also indicated the budget cuts would continue — at least $9 million more this year, most of which likely will come through personnel cuts. Tim Miller, a member of the board, concisely describes the dilemma: “We’re back to where we were last year, when, if we had to cut a teacher, then we had to cut a program.” In large part, as school treasurer Jack Pierson said, the reason is that “the only true reductions are people” — teachers and principals, to be precise.
As negotiations begin on the state budget, one key question is whether schools actually will gain the financial stability to match the rhetoric about providing every child the resources to succeed.