Why do public schools always need more money? This is a great question, and as the superintendent of Barberton City Schools, one I get all the time. Why can’t schools stay within their means? Why do they always keep going to taxpayers for additional revenue?
School funding in Ohio is one of the most complex puzzles I’ve ever seen. Public school districts are required to provide the state of Ohio a five-year budget forecast twice each year, but we still don’t know what our funding from the state will be for next school year. State funding accounts for 70 percent of our district’s revenue.
Since 2009, the funds coming to the Barberton schools have declined by $4 million per year. Some of this is due to reductions in federal and state funding; some from local reductions in real estate taxes because of declining property values. One example: Before 2009, a federal grant called Poverty Based Assistance provided us with $2.4 million to fund our full-day kindergarten program. We were able to pay all of our kindergarten teachers, plus others, entirely out of that grant. Poverty Based Assistance no longer exists, so all these teacher salaries have to come out of our general fund.
When funding from the state of Ohio became available to construct new buildings, we knew the construction project would save taxpayer dollars through consolidating buildings and being more efficient with staff and utility costs. Barberton voters passed a bond levy in March 2008 to build and renovate new buildings, with the state paying 60 percent of the costs.
The good news is that we are saving taxpayers approximately $500,000 per year because of the greater energy efficiencies and because we staff four buildings instead of the previous eight buildings. The bad news is that our community doesn’t understand that this construction money cannot be used for operations. Many think we have misused funds, just the opposite of what we have accomplished in Barberton.
Barberton’s board of education was proactive in the fall of 2008 when the economy took a dive. The board members understood that many people were losing their jobs and their investments were losing value. When the economy tanked, we began looking to cut expenses rather than go to the voters with another levy. We actually did not ask for a renewal of one levy that was due — we let it drop in order to stay off the ballot.
What we did not expect, however, was how much money would be cut from our state funding in 2011.
Since the spring of 2011, we drastically began reducing expenses, which included laying off people and reducing about 70 positions, including administrative, teaching and non-teaching employees. We closed Santrock Elementary a year earlier than we had scheduled to help reduce costs. Busing for students was cut to state minimums in 2012. All employees took three-year wage freezes.
But we are still deficit spending. There is a possibility that the state will give us more money this year than last. What people may not know is that this increase still equates to less than we received in 2010. On top of that, there are provisions in the budget to take more of the district’s resources to fund vouchers for private and charter schools, even though Barberton was rated Excellent by the state.
Unless we increase our revenue this spring, we will be forced to reduce expenses even more for the 2013-2014 school year. These reductions will include:
• Elimination of elementary art and music teachers (which may result in a shorter student day).
• Kindergarten cut back to half-time (pending outcome of the new state budget).
• Doubling pay-to-participate fees.
• Elimination of middle school foreign language.
• Reductions to middles school and high school music.
• Reductions to middle school sports.
• Reductions to high school foreign language.
If we are able to get additional revenue, the board pledges to restore busing to the one-mile mark for K-8 and pay-to-participate fees will remain at the current level. Full-day kindergarten, elementary art and music and middle school foreign language will be preserved.
We ask that the citizens of Barberton vote yes on May 7 to keep us from dismantling programs and services to children who need them. We also ask that all in Ohio challenge our state elected officials to solve the school funding crisis in Ohio.
Cleary is a superintendent of the Barberton City Schools.