Many school districts around the state are facing deep budget cuts due to failed levies in the May primary. Now school districts must make the tough choices and make ends meet. More often than not that means students will bear the brunt of school budget crises through fewer opportunities and larger class sizes. From laying off teachers to cutting sports and fine-arts programs, almost nothing is off the table - except teacher compensation.

Many school districts around the state are facing deep budget cuts due to failed levies in the May primary. Now school districts must make the tough choices and make ends meet. More often than not that means students will bear the brunt of school budget crises through fewer opportunities and larger class sizes. From laying off teachers to cutting sports and fine-arts programs, almost nothing is off the table - except teacher compensation.

The Gahanna-Jefferson Public School District illustrates this problem perfectly. In May, the school district asked voters for a 9-mill operating levy. This levy would have raised yearly property taxes by $312 for each $100,000 of assessed property value. For example, those owning a home worth $325,000 would have paid an additional $1,014 per year in property taxes. By a slim margin, the voters said no.

Because the G-J levy failed, the district cut two administrator jobs, 15 teacher positions, 11 noncertified positions and 12 alternative-instructor positions. There are also talks of cutting funds from the transportation, technology and textbook budgets. Additionally, to help cover the costs of athletics, the district could start implementing pay-to-play fees in 2011. If the next levy does not pass, these sports fees could soar up to $500.

All of the budget cuts have one thing in common: They hurt the kids. This approach is little more than emotional blackmail. There is no denying that school budgets must be balanced. However, in order to successfully balance the budget without cutting services to vulnerable populations, teacher compensation simply cannot be taken off the table.

For the 2008-09 school year, the average Gahanna-Jefferson teacher earned $67,494 for working 1,350 hours. Prorated to the standard full work year of 2,080 hours (40 hours per week for 52 weeks), the average teacher salary would be $103,991. Surprisingly, the average physical-education instructor in Gahanna schools earned $71,898 during 2008-09, or $110,776 when prorated to the full work year. These high figures do not even take into account retirement packages, sick pay and benefits.

Over and over again, Gahanna-Jefferson has failed to restrain spending. Between 1998 and 2009, the number of students in the district rose a mere 5.5 percent, but the per-pupil cost increased 80 percent from $6,595 to $11,289 - far outpacing inflation, which was only 29 percent over the 11-year period. Similarly, teacher pay increased by 44 percent, from $46,733 to $67,494, between 2001 and 2009 while inflation was only 21 percent.

Had the average teacher salary increased with the rate of inflation from 2001 to 2009, Gahanna-Jefferson would have saved $5,002,779 in 2009 alone. Instead of having to cut $2.5-million from the budget, the district would have realized a $2.5-million surplus.

When a school district asks for more money, taxpayers should examine spending and decide whether an increase in funding is warranted. If the school district is not restraining costs or if it is spending money frivolously, the taxpayers could decline levy requests and send a clear message to the school district that it needs to make do with the resources it has been given. Thus, district residents could hold their schools accountable - for now.

The 2009 state budget included the creation of a new kind of levy: the conversion levy. If passed, this levy would create a permanent, indefinite increase in property taxes and, consequently, in school revenues. Had a conversion levy been passed in 1998, Gahanna schools would have collected an additional $19,817,129 in revenue between 1998 and 2008 without the district ever having to go back to the voters. Fundamentally, the conversion levy removes the best accountability measure taxpayers have to keep their school districts in check.

By cutting various programs to save money, school districts continue to nibble on the margins without making any real strides toward solving the systemic funding crisis created by ever-increasing gold-plated compensation packages for school district employees, including double-dipping administrators. If school districts truly want to rein in spending, they must be willing to take on the entrenched interests of the teachers unions and tell administrators the gravy train has come to an end.

While teachers and administrators continue to receive salary increases that far outpace the rate of inflation, many of their private-sector neighbors are taking pay cuts, losing jobs and struggling to make ends meet. It is patently unfair to saddle these folks with higher property taxes at a time when we are in the worst single decade for investors since the 1830s - just so teachers can be compensated at a level that is totally out of touch with economic reality.

Mary McCleary, a Gahanna resident, is a policy analyst for the Buckeye Institute for Public Policy Solutions. E-mail her at mmccleary@buckeyeinstitute.org.

Mary

McCleary