Ohioans are used to seeing school levies on their ballots. Following the economic downturn, it seems like hardly an election goes by without having to vote on funding for the nearby school district.
Many schools are having a tough time of it after half a dozen failed levies in just a few years, but continue to ask voters for more funding because they really don’t have another way to raise revenue.
Meanwhile, our neighboring states are just now getting used to the levy system and are looking to Ohio to see how we’ve done it for decades.
But the truth is, Ohio’s school funding system has been ruled unconstitutional by the state’s Supreme Court four times, most notably in the 1997 DeRolph v. State case.
The problem is that schools districts in areas with plenty of property wealth tend to collect more local tax dollars, while school districts in poorer areas, usually urban school districts, get significantly less funding from local tax dollars.
It’s this unconstitutional funding model that school district superintendents and board members blame for having to beg voters for support year after year.
Governor John Kasich has vowed to develop a new funding model for Ohio’s schools. It was supposed to be revealed by the end of October, but we haven’t seen it yet. (We have a request into Kasich spokesperson Rob Nichols and will update once we hear back from him.) It’s unclear exactly how this new funding model might affect Ohio schools.
“Nobody wants to pay more taxes and the way the school funding system is set up it makes politicians out of guys like me,” complains Joe Clark.
He’s interim superintendent of Nordonia Hills Schools in Northeast Ohio. His district is asking for a 6 mill levy to raise about $5.6 million. This is their fifth levy in two years, and it’s their last chance before the district’s deficit rises to $8.5 million. That is more than 15 percent of their operating budget, which means Nordonia risks slipping into fiscal emergency and getting taken over by the state.
But Nordonia isn’t a financially struggling urban district. That’s actually something that has worked against them, says Nordonia Hills Schools Board President Doug Masteller.
“Nordonia is considered a wealthy district. It’s considered a wealthy district because it has a lot of property value but the average homeowner in Nordonia is, I think, pretty much in the middle of the pack as far as income and so you’ve got this property wealth situation where the governor and the legislators expect the community to pay more for their schools and you’ve got a voting population at the local level saying ‘I can’t afford that,’” says Masteller.
He says that leads to a constant tension, “and the Governor’s definitely not taking the money away directly (from the district) but he’s kind of giving you the gun and telling you to take care of it yourself, if you can’t you’re going to have to shoot yourself.”
Masteller says if this latest levy fails, the district will have to cut more. They’ve already cut more than 50 teachers and hundreds of high school classes over the last few years, for a total savings of $7 million over three years. Students already shell out a few hundred dollars to participate in sports and other extracurricular activities. Masteller says if the levy fails, students may end up having to pay the full cost of their after school activities. Depending on the number and type of activities, that could add up to thousands of dollars.