Key local school issues put focus on state funding fight

Beavercreek, Bellbrook, Oakwood among seven districts seeking new operating money or bond issues.

Seven local school districts – most of them in wealthier communities — are asking for additional levy or bond funding in the May 7 election, at the exact moment state legislators are debating how to fairly revamp a state funding model that draws criticism from schools on all sides.

The question is how to build a funding model that is fair to Ohio taxpayers and students in a poverty-wracked urban district, as well as the wealthy suburban district with no real commercial base, and the rural district with few students but miles of farmland.

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Beavercreek schools Treasurer Penny Rucker has worked everywhere from Columbus and Dayton to Upper Arlington and Beavercreek and said “there’s no utopia,” as every district has hardships of one type or another.

“Other task forces studied the fairness and equity of funding schools, and I’ve heard people say one funding formula won’t do it,” she said. “You almost need five or six different formulas for all of the variables of the 600-plus districts and their dynamics. We’ll see what this group has, and we’ll try to work with it.”

Beavercreek, Bellbrook, Lebanon, Oakwood, Piqua, Tipp City and Valley View schools are on the ballot for additional tax money. All but Piqua rank in the top 20 percent of the state when it comes to the median income of their residents.

But because school funding is mainly based on property wealth, and some of those are largely residential communities, each mill of taxes doesn’t always raise a ton of money per student. By that measure – how much 1 mill raises per student — only two of those seven districts rank in the top 40 percent of the state – Beavercreek and Bellbrook.

That leads to passionate battles between two sides — school backers who want money to recruit the best teachers and offer the highest-level programs, pitted against neighbors who say they’ve simply been tapped out by tax increases and can’t afford any more.

Every day, students driving to Bellbrook High School see it played out on the roadside, where hundreds of campaign signs alternate about every five feet, urging residents to vote, via an all-caps “YES” or “NO.”

“That is probably the most discouraging thing about the reliance on local property taxes that face school districts,” Lebanon Superintendent Todd Yohey said. “Any time you need an increase in revenue, you are automatically creating something that divides your community. It’s certainly not something you want to do or enjoy doing, but if we’re going to educate the students of our community and provide them the best education possible, then we need resources to do that.”

The state plan

It’s said that democracy is messy, though, and that’s evident in both levy elections and state budget negotiations.

State Reps. Bob Cupp (R-Lima) and John Patterson (D-Jefferson) last month rolled out a proposed new state funding system, designed by a workgroup that included educators, that would weigh both income and property wealth in communities.

The existing funding formula has become such a patchwork that 82 percent of districts are funded based on an artificial cap limiting their funding, or a guarantee, giving them more than the real formula allots. Cupp and Patterson’s plan would get 85 percent of districts back on the main funding formula.

Asked about Rucker’s question of whether any single funding formula can solve all districts’ problems, Patterson said it “would be a Herculean task … I think we’re doing well going from 18 to 85 (percent of districts on the formula).”

But even as praise rolls in for the effort of the Cupp-Patterson group, complaints and requests for changes are rolling in, too. Anti-tax groups criticized the plan immediately for proposing hundreds of millions more state dollars per year.

Education groups’ criticisms have been less about the number of dollars and more about how they are distributed. The plan would give large funding increases for some growing, wealthy districts whose funding had been capped, while offering no increase for several high-poverty school districts, including Dayton. Patterson said in some cases, the plan’s extra $150 per economically disadvantaged student was offset by enrollment declines or other factors.

This week, the Ohio School Boards Association and others testified at the Statehouse that the plan should fund high-poverty districts better. Jocelyn Rhynard, vice president of Dayton’s schools board, testified that Dayton needs funding increases to better serve non-English speakers, to make teacher salaries competitive and to provide social services for impoverished students.

Cupp, Patterson and other legislators have promised to continue refining their plan, as a school funding model must be approved by the legislature as part of the state budget process by the end of June.

Beavercreek levy

The district is asking voters for a new five-year, 6.15-mill operating levy after residents narrowly rejected a similar levy in November. They also have a no-increase renewal of a 1-mill facilities levy on the same ballot.

The school board already approved $2.6 million in budget reductions, including 15 teacher cuts, course reductions in foreign language, art and engineering, and higher pay-to-play fees. Rucker and Superintendent Paul Otten called underfunded state mandates a key budget problem. Rucker said Beavercreek spends $16 million more on special education than the state provides.

Asked if state funding of their district was fair, Rucker chuckled and said, “Define fair.”

“Districts that are higher wealth as far as income and property value are going to be asked to pay more than districts are more impoverished. Overall, that is what is considered fair. But when you look at the unfunded and underfunded mandates … our local taxpayers have to pay that.”

Oakwood bond/levy

Oakwood residents will cast one vote on a two-part tax — a permanent 4.99 mills for day-to-day school costs, and a 37-year, 2.71-mill bond issue for $18 million in facility improvements. The combined annual cost would be $269.50 for a $100,000 home. Superintendent Kyle Ramey has said the bond money would pay for plumbing, electrical work, roofing and more for 90-year-old buildings.

Ramey said while he’s optimistic about the Cupp-Patterson funding plan, “I don’t believe that we’re going to be saved by Columbus, ever. It’s going to be up to us as a local community to continue to push for the level of service and level of opportunities that we want for our children.”

Ramey acknowledges that Oakwood’s makeup (residential with very little commercial base) pushes levies heavily onto home owners. Voters have approved all recent levies, and Ramey has often cited a goal of “giving Oakwood the schools that the community wants and expects.”

But reaction was split in the past year, with some vocal opposition to pieces of the facilities plan.

Bellbrook levy

Bellbrook and Sugarcreek Twp. voters will decide on a 7.5-mill replacement levy that would raise an extra $3 million per year on a permanent basis. Superintendent Doug Cozad said state funding relies too much on property tax to be “fair.”

Bellbrook schools rank in the top 10 percent in Ohio for residents’ median income and just outside the top 10 percent for the share of school revenue that comes from local taxes (60.4 percent). With residents footing much of the bill, many decisions come down to what voters want.

“Even though we achieve at a high level – we’re one of 28 school districts in Ohio with an A (on the state report card) – I believe our community wants more than that,” Cozad said. “They want things like STEM education to kids from K-12, they want the arts, they want a well-rounded student. … To get all those things, there’s a cost to that.”

An active “vote no” campaign, with hundreds of signs lining Feedwire Road, has intensified debate in the community.

Tipp City bond issue

The school district is asking for a 27-year bond levy to fund a $35.75 million project for new classroom space. Tipp City schools would renovate and add on to the L.T. Ball school while closing the Broadway and Nevin Coppock elementaries.

As with operational funding, wealthier school districts like Tipp get less school facilities money as well. Superintendent Gretta Kumpf said once the state offered 35 percent project funding, she felt Tipp had to present the issue to residents.

Treasurer David Stevens said the new overall school funding model looks promising, but he’s not sure where the extra money would come from. He also doesn’t think Ohio’s wide variety of districts will ever truly agree on a funding model.

“I tell people the state funding formula provides $6,020 per student, but that’s before the wealth index is put in place, so we only receive about $2,400 per student,” Stevens said. “People are surprised and they say, why is it so much less? And I say, the state looks at how much money we can raise locally. … But you just get a lot of scratched brows, and it doesn’t make sense (to them).”

Valley View levy

Valley View’s 6.49-mill levy is the first new operating levy request since 2013, after the community rejected levies to build new schools. Superintendent Ben Richards has pledged $1.5 million in cuts over three years, including staff cuts by attrition, busing cuts and some larger class sizes.

Valley View is reassigning some teachers to attack problems like lower math scores and the state’s “whole child” approach, including soft skills. Richards said it’s not ideal to be on the ballot just as the state may change state funding, but a May levy allows the district to make changes – one way or the other – over the summer rather than in the middle of a school year.

Like others, he questioned where the additional money in the state proposal will come from, and acknowledged that most communities are split when in comes to taxes.

“We’re just trying to make sure we convey the need,” Richards said. “For people who say we can’t afford it, this is why we live in a Democratic society, and to each person their own.”

Lebanon levy

A new four-year, 4.99-mill emergency levy to pay for daily operating expenses would be Lebanon’s first new operating levy in eight years. Superintendent Todd Yohey pointed to the fact that Lebanon schools are in the bottom 5 percent of the state in spending per pupil, saying the new levy would simply pay to keep the status quo.

Yohey said despite debate about which districts get how much, the proposed state funding change would give more to the vast majority of districts, who would welcome the increase. He said state funding is not fair because it treats districts generally the same rather than accounting for wide variations.

Yohey also urged legislators to look beyond the impact on their own local schools in making a decision.

“There is no such thing as a perfect funding formula, but they need to look at our state as a whole and take care of every student, not just the students within their districts,” he said. “They need to support a formula that will address the needs of the masses.”

State-level battles

Patterson acknowledged those political battles, where legislators lobby for changes to help their own districts.

“That’s why when we did the district-by-district simulations, we did them so late. We did not want the dollars to get in the way of the concept. We wanted a pure concept (for the formula),” he said. “Think of this as a legacy for all of Ohio and for our kids. It reflects what we value. As the governor has said, this is an investment in our collective future.”

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