Task force: New Ohio school funding formula needed

MARIETTA – The state’s method of distributing funding to public schools in Ohio has long been criticized as failing to address inequalities between rich and poor districts, so the findings of a task force established by two state lawmakers have been awaited with anxiety and anticipation by school district leaders across the state.

A report issued Friday took the task force’s findings into a concrete realm, with projections of how the new funding model would affect individual school districts.

Washington County officials were still digesting the data Friday afternoon, but those with both the Warren and Marietta districts said the results looked promising.

“Right now, I’m reading the notes for the simulation, but it looks like Marietta City Schools would get an increase for the next two years,” Marietta City Schools treasurer Frank Antill said at 3 p.m. Friday. The simulations spreadsheet, showing how much each district would receive under the proposal, was posted earlier Friday afternoon. The header texts and formulas were so lengthy the header columns would not fit on the screen of an ordinary desktop computer.

The task force was established in late 2017 by Ohio Rep. Robert Cupp, R-Lima, and Ohio Rep. John Patterson, D-Ashtabula, in an effort to address longstanding grievances about the Ohio school funding formula, which was deemed unconstitutional 20 years ago and determined to rely too heavily on property taxes.

The Cupp-Patterson project to seek an equitable funding formula started in late 2017 by consulting state agencies, local school officials and others with an interest in the matter.

Late Friday, Antill sent a summary for the impact the funding model could have on Washington County’s six K-12 public school districts. If the terms of the proposal become law, Marietta City Schools would receive an additional $487,479 in the 2020-21 fiscal year and $335,479 in the following year, based on enrollment remaining the same, compared to the current funding formula.

For Fort Frye and Warren local schools, the change would be neutral across two years, Belpre and Wolf Creek schools would both receive a more than $400,000 increase in the first year of the revised formula, and Frontier in the first year would benefit by $291,370.

Ohio Rep. Don Jones of District 95, which covers much of Washington County, said the Cupp-Patterson project has gotten strong bipartisan support in the legislature.

“I feel very good about the fact that this was put together by people in the education business in Ohio – superintendents, treasurers, transportation, special education coordinators, from rural, urban and suburban districts, and legislators who know education – and they used a methodology to show how they came up with the cost of educating a student,” Jones said.

“The biggest takeaway is that this funding will allow the districts to do a better job of planning. They can look at their enrollment and know where they’re at,” he said.

The current formula is infamously awkward, with numerous arcane calculations related to district real estate values and other elements. In addition, some districts are under what’s termed “the guarantee” – assurance that their funding will not go below specific levels – and others are subject to “the cap,” which places a ceiling above which their funding won’t go.

“The guarantee and the cap would be gone,” Jones said.

The proposal, he said, still needs to be drafted as a bill and then passed through committee, a process that could require months.

Although the funding model is close to neutral in comparison to the current formula, Warren Local Schools Superintendent Kyle Newton said he was still enthusiastic about its potential.

“It’s a whole different way of funding,” he said. “For the state total, it looks like an increase of $400 million, and that’s great. I like to think global and collaborative, and this looks like a real good thing … that gets us to where we came move forward.”

Antill has seen proposals come and go, but he said this one seems worthy of support.

“In my career, I’ve seen some attempts to fix the formula, and to me, this one has merit,” he said Friday. “They worked on it over a year and a half with treasurers and knowledgeable legislators, and this method makes sense. It’s quite a report, and it has everybody’s ear.”

In addition to the Cupp-Patterson proposal, the governor’s office recently unveiled a separate budget proposal that would inject $550 million into education for provision of what educators term “wrap-around” services, which include mental health and social services directed at both students at risk and their families.

“It looks like a number of districts would pick up a significant amount of revenue from that, and Marietta would do very well,” said Marietta City Schools Superintendent Will Hampton.

A regional meeting for school administrators is scheduled to take place Monday in Athens to further clarify the terms and impacts of the Cupp-Patterson proposal.