All but two of the 15 school districts in the five-county Akron-Canton area with an issue on the May 7 ballot are proposing tax hikes for homeowners — a request that’s increasingly frequent as superintendents express concerns over declining state aid and costly mandates.
State officials, area superintendents and school funding experts said 13 requests for new money in 15 issues overall is an unusually high percentage. It’s far higher than the 66 percent of statewide school levy issues that are asking for new money so far this year — and that figure represents a 10-year high for Ohio.
Since 2003, total levies have decreased. But the rate at which additional levies — those that would raise new taxes — have been sought has doubled. Less than one-third of the levy issues statewide in 2003 called for new taxes. By 2010, that had risen to two-thirds, according to data the Ohio School Board Association provided.
“During that time a couple things are happening. You’ve seen property values go down. You have state funding being decreased over the years,” said Jeff Chambers, director of communication services at OSBA. “If your expenses are going up and revenue does not keep pace with inflation, then you have to look for money somewhere.”
Barberton and other school districts that have struggled at the polls have lopped millions of dollars from budgets each year to keep pace with state cuts.
Superintendent Patti Cleary said savings from building consolidations and $1 million in cuts each year have prevented the school district from asking for more than Tuesday’s 8.45-mill emergency levy request, which has failed three times since 2011.
“Things keep getting mandated and things keep getting dimmer and dimmer,” Cleary said.
She said schools are facing a “perfect storm” of costly technology upgrades linked to state-mandated online testing, a third-grade reading guarantee calling for additional testing, remediation and retention, new teacher evaluations, new administrative evaluations, new reporting methods under a new report card and other education overhauls aimed at raising the bar for Ohio’s kids.
“I don’t know if the community gets that. They just hear that we keep asking for money,” Cleary said.
Superintendent Todd Nichols gets it. He’s asking the owner of a $100,000 home to give about $92 a year in additional property taxes so Cuyahoga Falls schools can buy computers and boost Internet connectivity to meet the requirements of tomorrow’s testing.
“We don’t have room in the general fund to make the necessary changes,” he said, adding that developers of the new online tests have suggested that for every four computers available now, six more are needed by next year.
The five-year bond issue would purchase those computers, as well as safety and security upgrades. Remaining funds would alleviate transportation costs as the school district approaches state minimum busing standards.
Where funding comes from
Local taxpayers supply about 49 percent of education funding in Ohio. About 8 percent comes from the federal government, and the state contributes the remaining 43 percent.
The state’s share — raised mainly through income taxes and lottery profits — supports public and charter schools and some private-school students who receive vouchers. These funds are distributed in varying amounts to each district based on property wealth — a measure of local taxpayers’ ability to support their schools.
That means communities with low property values, like Barberton, and average property values, like Manchester, rely more heavily on state-distributed tax dollars.
But Manchester Superintendent Sam Reynolds isn’t waiting for the General Assembly to finalize the state budget before playing his cards.
“The board decided on a renewal before the uncertainty of the state budget,” Reynolds said.
Kasich flat-lined state aid for Manchester schools under his original budget proposal. The Ohio House, which appears to have reduced overall education funding from the governor’s version, reports a 5 percent increase of nearly $250,000 for Manchester. But Reynolds, like other area educators, knows that figure will change.
“We’re kind of on the edge right now as to what is going to happen next,” Reynolds said as the state budget works through the Ohio Senate.
He said the tentative budget does not appear to keep pace with the added costs of new curriculum standards.
Reynolds isn’t asking for new money. He’s asking the community to pass a 9.8-mill levy for the sixth time since 1985. There is one change, however: Approval would make the measure continuous, or perpetual. That means the district would avoid the future costs of again placing the issue on a ballot.
Such a move requires a supportive community willing to make such a long-standing commitment. Manchester residents traditionally have passed renewals with heathy margins.
While Cleary, Nichols and Reynolds link state mandates and funding cuts to the rise of requests for more local dollars, the president of the Ohio Controlling Board, which provides legislative oversight on state agency expenditures, says that view provides an incomplete picture.
“It’s my personal opinion that levies are driven more by the cyclical nature of the termination of existing levies,” Randy Cole said. “And if there’s a second factor, it’s the economy.”
Cole said efficiency could curb educational expenses, if school administrators would embrace innovation and collaboration. He cites Green schools and city administrators sharing office space as a prime example.
“I don’t think it’s accurate to just make a correlation that the only thing that’s happening in a school budget is state support. There are a lot of pieces to this puzzle,” Cole said. “What concerns me is when someone focuses on only one piece of that puzzle. If you’re not looking at that entire picture, then things get lost.”
Cleary acknowledges the stalled economy and depressed property values recovering from the recession.
But she can’t ignore the fact her district receives less state aid today than in past years. Based on Ohio Department of Education financial reports, Barberton received $746,000 more in state aid in 2009 and $418,000 more in 2011, when the school district first asked local taxpayers to pass the same levy on Tuesday’s ballot.
Doug Livingston can be reached at 330-996-3792 or firstname.lastname@example.org.