School officials react to Kasich plan

MARIETTA – Elements of Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s education-funding proposals announced this week have been received positively by area school officials, but that optimism is tempered until state officials can show them the money.

“I think on the surface it sounds good, but the devil’s in the details,” said Marietta City Schools Superintendent Harry Fleming. “We all want to see what it looks like on paper.”

Fleming was one of at least three local superintendents attending last Thursday’s special meeting of the Buckeye Association of School Administrators in Columbus, where Kasich unveiled his plan. It proposes spending an additional $1.2 billion in state funds over the next two years and guarantees no district will receive less money than it did this year. Other proposals are aimed at easing the funding system’s reliance on property taxes – which have led to it being declared unconstitutional multiple times – and directing money to students based on financial and other needs.

Wolf Creek Local Schools Superintendent Bob Caldwell said the plan, as presented, sounds like a good one, but he too wants to see the actual numbers, expected to be released in the coming week. Caldwell said he was pleased to see provisions that take into account not only a district’s property values but also residents’ income levels and free and reduced lunch rates.

“That’s big. We’ve requested that for years,” he said. “The poorer your residents are, the more state aid you’re supposed to get.”

Fleming said the state currently determines a district’s wealth based on the per-pupil property tax valuation, which doesn’t necessarily reflect the incomes of residents.

Caldwell said Kasich was asked during the meeting whether the “hold-harmless” money districts receive to compensate them for the elimination of the tangible personal property tax and electrical and natural gas deregulation would be decreased again. Last year, that cost Wolf Creek $450,000.

“He specifically stated that was not going to happen” in the upcoming budget, Caldwell said.

To address the inequities between property taxes in different districts, the new formula would guarantee that any district levying property taxes of $20 for every $1,000 of assessed value (which includes all Washington County districts and every one in the state, lest they be ineligible for state funding) would receive funding to put them on the same footing as a district with a per-pupil property tax base of $250,000.

Caldwell said Kasich indicated just 24 districts in the state have a rate that high. None of Washington County’s districts come within less than $95,000 of that amount.

“Potentially, it will help us,” said Belpre City Schools Superintendent Tony Dunn, noting districts won’t know until estimates are released how much assistance that could mean.

Although Dunn saw some good elements in the governor’s proposal, he still has a number of questions. One area is assisting districts with building new facilities or renovating existing ones.

While the Ohio School Facilities Commission was established to aid districts in that regard, Dunn said the way they calculate the local share has Belpre ranked in the 79th percentile in terms of property value, meaning the state would only pick up 21 percent of a building project in the district. Local voters would have to approve a bond issue for the rest.

“You don’t have over half of your kids in the free or reduced lunch program and you’re in the top 25 percent of (wealth) in the state,” said Dunn, who attributes the disconnect to the presence of chemical plants in the district. “They need to have a better mechanism for establishing that wealth of the community.”

And while he was pleasantly surprised to learn districts’ funding would not be reduced in the upcoming biennium, Dunn said the plan does not reverse cuts made in years past. Belpre lost $400,000 in each of the last two years as federal stimulus dollars dried up. While that was always identified as a one-time source of money, Dunn said it was used to displace state funding which was never returned.

“When the stimulus money went away, there was no return of state dollars for that,” he said.

Another concern of Dunn’s was the money the plan will allocate for private and charter schools. One proposal will allow families making up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level to be eligible for vouchers to send their kindergarteners from a low-performing public school to a private one.

“The school choice is really depleting funds from public schools, and now we’re going to send those funds to private schools,” Dunn said.

Despite his reservations, Dunn said he appreciated the governor’s accessibility to administrators.

Fleming said he was impressed by the tone of Kasich’s message Thursday.

“He acted as if he were a supporter of public education, which I had not heard him articulate before,” he said.

Warren Local Board of Education President Sidney Brackenridge, a former treasurer in the district, said he was still trying to digest the details of the plan.

“It looks like (Kasich’s) trying, but I don’t know the (specifics) yet,” he said. “It looked to me like they put quite a bit of effort into it.”

Currently, Brackenridge said Warren tends to land in the middle of the spectrum, getting help but not “a whole lot.”

“It will probably end up being the same here,” he said.

David White, the legislative liaison for the Fort Frye Local Board of Education, said he’s eager to see the numbers on how the plan will apply to his district, but so far, he likes what he sees.

“I think it’s about time,” he said. “I don’t know how we’re going to operate or any school’s going to operate with the budget we have now.”

Kasich is slated to unveil the rest of his proposed biennial budget today, after which his initiatives head to the General Assembly.

Ohio Rep. Andy Thompson, R-Marietta, said he believes the plan will be good news for area districts as it moves state funding to areas that are more in need.

“I think (Kasich’s) brought in the appropriate interested parties. I think he’s addressed the constitutionality,” he said.

But the new plan won’t mean school districts can simply continue with business as usual, Thompson said, especially those faced with declining enrollment.

“As you lack the students to draw the funds, you need to … adjust your expectations and also you have to be more creative about the ways you manage your workforce,” he said, pointing to Warren and Fort Frye’s sharing of a superintendent and treasurer as one example of cost-saving.

Ohio Rep. Debbie Phillips, D-Albany, said she wants to take a closer look at the proposals but is intrigued by ideas like guaranteeing the resources of a district with a $250,000 per-pupil property tax valuation.

“I guess I’d like to say cautious optimism, but the details matter,” she said.

Phillips also has concerns about diverting money to private and charter schools before the inequities in funding public schools are addressed.

The first meeting of the Finance and Appropriations Committee to take up budget matters is Tuesday. Phillips said streaming video of the committee meetings can be viewed at www.ohiochannel.org, and she invited constituents to watch.

“If there are areas where folks think we need to be digging deeper and asking questions, let me know,” she said.