MARIETTA - With a new school funding model expected to be unveiled next year, Ohio is one of 35 states a report says are giving less money to public education now than before the recession.
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, an organization that provides research and analysis on matters related to budget and tax policies and their impact on low- to moderate-income families and individuals, says many states made deep cuts to education in response to the recession, which began in the fall of 2007.
When dollars are adjusted for inflation, Ohio is spending 7.9 percent less per student in the current fiscal year than in fiscal 2008, when the recession began. That amount is a bigger cut than 13 other states. Meanwhile, 12 states have increased spending.
Photo by Evan Bevins
As state aid decreases or increases slightly, local school districts are dealing with increasing costs and declining funds in other areas. For example, diesel fuel prices have risen in recent years, meaning it costs the Marietta City school district more when drivers like Jim Bauman, pictured, fill up.
The report attributes the declines in state spending to a reliance on cuts alone rather than a mix of reductions and new revenue to address the effects of the recession.
Gov. John Kasich's spokesman Rob Nichols said the state of Ohio had little choice as it tried to erase a projected $8 billion deficit in the 2012-13 biennial budget.
"We're not raising taxes and killing jobs," he said. "Hiking taxes on Ohioans that are already bleeding out jobs is unconscionable."
The report warns that deep cuts to schools will also have a negative impact on the economy. In addition to the elimination of approximately 328,000 jobs by local school districts across the country since June 2008, the related reduction of private-sector purchases "affects local businesses and slows recovery," it says.
There could be longer-term effects as well.
"To prosper, businesses require a well-educated workforce," the report says. "The deep education spending cuts states have enacted will weaken that workforce in the future by diminishing the quality of elementary and high schools."
In Washington County, four school districts are expected to receive less this year in state aid than they did in fiscal 2008. Belpre City and Frontier Local schools are actually receiving more, although both have seen a decline since fiscal 2011, the last year federal stimulus money was available to supplement state dollars.
The "bridge" formula put in place by Kasich's administration to replace his predecessor Ted Strickland's evidence-based model for school funding increased the state's contributions to districts by 2 percent in fiscal 2012 and 1.5 percent this year. But other changes, including the expected loss of federal stimulus dollars and the acceleration of the phaseout of tangible personal property tax reimbursements, drain money elsewhere. Additional factors also put pressure on school finances.
"The cost of doing business continues to go up every year," Belpre City Schools Treasurer Eva Yeager said in an email. "This includes such things as salaries, benefits, utilities, supplies, maintenance/repairs on aging facilities, etc. Nothing stays static or gets cheaper to buy."
The overall state aid amounts do not include decreases in the reimbursements for the eliminated tangible personal property and utility taxes. Those revenues were being phased out over a period of several years, but that process was accelerated in 2011 in an effort to address the state's multibillion-dollar budget shortfall.
Belpre lost $178,412 in tangible personal property tax reimbursements in fiscal 2012 in addition to a $207,943.04 decline in state funding. A nearly $16,000 increase in state funding is expected this year, but another $178,412 will be cut from the tax reimbursements, Yeager said.
The Fort Frye Local school district saw its reimbursements eliminated in fiscal 2012, a reduction of $130,000 in revenue, Treasurer Melcie Wells said. Meanwhile, the Warren Local school district, for which she also serves as treasurer, had its reimbursements reduced by almost $375,000 this year, with the remaining $160,000 set to evaporate next year.
Tax reimbursement decreases were not immediately available for other county school districts.
Frontier's overall state funding has remained more stable than most Washington County districts since 2008, but the tax reimbursements, rising costs and the loss of federal money have pushed the district to not fill a number of positions and discuss closing Lawrence Elementary School.
As it is, Lawrence will go from seven teachers last year to three this year, with kindergarteners going to Newport Elementary and the remaining grades doubled up.
"Obviously that was a cost measure, not the best educational system you can do," Superintendent Bruce Kidder said.
Positions are often reduced through attrition rather than reductions in force, Kidder said.
"When we have a retirement, we look at what we can do to see if we can get by without filling it," he said.
A proposed income tax levy was rejected by voters last year, and the district may place a property tax levy on the ballot in 2013, though no final decision has been made.
Marietta City Schools have been somewhat insulated from an 8.1 percent overall reduction in state funding since fiscal 2008 thanks to voters' approval of a $2.75 million-a-year operating levy in 2011.
"We've been fortunate ... because the good people of Marietta did pass additional dollars," Superintendent Harry Fleming said.
The passage allowed the board of education to rescind about $1.45 million in cuts and restore some earlier losses. For example, Chinese was recently added as the second foreign language offering at Marietta High School, after Spanish had been the only option for incoming students for a few years.
"We basically are keeping our nose above water and watching our expenditures," Fleming said. "You just do the best you can to make sure you're living within your means."
Kasich's administration is developing a new school-funding formula to replace the property tax-based method declared unconstitutional multiple times.
"I would hope that funding would improve from the state," Fleming said. "I know they've got a surplus now, so you would hope they would pass some of that along to the schools."
Estimates for the surplus amount range from $408 million to nearly $1 billion if the transferal of Ohio's liquor license operations to JobsOhio, the governor's privatized job creation entity, goes through before the end of the fiscal year. But officials have indicated the administration intends to bank the surplus.
Nichols said the new formula won't simply consist of pumping more money into schools. The focus will be on getting dollars to the classroom instead of bureaucracy and emphasizing student performance, he said.
"Everyone's for far too long just focused on inputs and how many assistant guidance counselors and how many nurses," Nichols said. "Nobody's focused on what's working. ... We want to focus on the output."
Per pupil spending increased by 98 percent over a period of 15 years in Ohio, yet student performance remained stagnant, Nichols said.
"The issue here is what are you doing with those dollars?" he said.
Kidder said he doesn't anticipate a big boost from the new formula.
"I think this is the new reality. I don't see the funding increasing," he said.