The Ohio Supreme Court ruling that ordered lawmakers to find a way to fund public education more equitably has created a rift in state government. Some Democrats interpret the court's decision as a demand for dramatic change in a tax structure deeply rooted in Ohio history. And they see Republican Governor Bob Taft and the GOP-controlled legislature resisting such change with all they can muster. The struggle could conceivably play out over several more years. And while local school officials know a solution could affect their own tax situations, they aren't waiting around for one. School levies are business-as-usual in some communities holding special elections one week from today. 90.3's Bill Rice reports.
Bill Rice- In case you've forgotten there's a special election on next week, supporters of the Cleveland bond issue proposal to fix up the schools are here to remind you.
(Sound of Issue 14 ad)
This ad is one of several that have peppered both radio and television airwaves in recent weeks. Cleveland's Issue 14, which will raise $380 million for school renovations, is one of nine school levy proposals appearing on ballots across Cuyahoga County. Cleveland's is clearly the giant among them, with a total of more than $800 million in capital improvements at stake. But it's the smaller operating levies being proposed in other districts that are more closely tied to the school funding debate raging in Columbus this week.
At this recent North Olmstead City Council meeting, council members are unanimous in supporting their school district's 7.9 mil tax to pay for operating expenses. North Olmstead hasn't passed a new school levy in six years. It has to now, says district treasurer Robert Matsen, because of a state law he sees as antiquated. House Bill 920 was passed in the 1970s to counter rampant property inflation. But these are different times Matsen says. Property values are more stable, and House Bill 920 -- still in place -- puts local schools at a constant disadvantage.
Robert Matsen- What happens is that as the values of the properties increase, the county automatically reduces the actual amount of voted millage so that there's a zero increase.
BR- In other words, he says, under HB 920 as property values rise, local school taxes are held steady, with the result that schools can't keep up with the rising costs of educating kids.
RM- The city has enjoyed growth in their tax revenues, which is generally income taxes -- they've had about a 28% increase over the last six years. If I had a 28% increase like the city did, I wouldn't have to come back and ask for another levy.
BR- But the North Olmstead district's growth during that time was only two percent, Matsen says. Superintendent Norma Conner says of all the things the legislature should consider in trying to come up with a fair way to fund schools, reversing that provision of House Bill 920 ranks high.
Norma Conner- We have no way to actually increase our revenues over time, simply just to keep up with inflation or increasing property values, and so consequently schools continually have to go back to the voters, spend time, and countless hours that could have better been spent on the purpose of schooling, which is an educational mission, not a fundraising mission.
BR- In the meantime, Conner says, no one knows what the funding solution will look like if and when the governor signs it, and her district can't wait to find out.
NC- School districts need to take care of themselves in the state of Ohio, and we'll be able to receive state funding when that state funding is available. We can't wait on a promise. We've been waiting on a promise for over eleven years.
BR- It's been 11 years since the original DeRolph vs. Ohio lawsuit that's led to what might now be considered an impasse between the Supreme Court and the legislature. In 1997 the Court ordered lawmakers to come up with a way to lessen the educational disparities between rich and poor districts. The solution the republican majority came up with failed to meet the mandate, and in 2000 they were ordered to try again. Their deadline is about six weeks away, and there's much disagreement as to whether the GOP plan currently being hammered out will satisfy the court. House Speaker Larry Householder thinks it will.
Larry Householder- I feel pretty good about it. I think that, certainly I don't wear a black robe, but as a legislator I think we put an awfully lot of work into it, and we've gone through and looked at the things that were said in DeRolph One and DeRolph Two. We think we meet the court's measure as far as those issues are concerned.
BR- But State Representative Bryan Flannery scoffs at the notion. He points to the court's position that local property taxes figure too prominently in school funding, and says the current bill does nothing to address that. Or, for that matter, the problem of phantom revenue, another House Bill 920 anomaly Flannery says hamstrings districts. He advises local school boards to plan for business as usual.
Bryan Flannery- They'll wind up with a partisan bill that doesn't do the job, that will require the SC to come back and put the ball in their hands. So to your listeners who have levies on the ballot I'm sorry to say that right now it's more of the same. Get used to it and get your campaign gear ready.
BR- North Royalton is the only other county school district besides Cleveland considering a bond issue for facilities improvements. Six others have operating levies on their ballots: Bedford, South Euclid/Lyndhurst, North Olmstead, Solon, Garfield Heights, and Strongsville.
In Cleveland, Bill Rice, 90.3 WCPN.