Pickerington Board of Education members last week launched another attack against Gov. Ted Strickland and the Ohio General Assembly over new mandates they say are unfunded and causing further financial strain on schools.

Pickerington Board of Education members last week launched another attack against Gov. Ted Strickland and the Ohio General Assembly over new mandates they say are unfunded and causing further financial strain on schools.

As dstrict officials bear down on a decision to ask voters to reach deeper into their pockets to finance local schools, board members adamantly maintain that cuts in state funding and new, government-imposed programs are at the root of the district's hardships.

On June 25, some board members intensified those assertions.

Though no action was taken, board member Lisa Reade said the district should ask the Ohio School Boards Association to examine "unfunded mandates" implemented by state legislators and Strickland in order to gauge their effectiveness.

"I would like to ask the Ohio school board and see if they have audited any unfunded mandates," Reade said.

Reade and board members Cathy Olshefski were particularly vocal in opposition to the Healthy Choices for Healthy Children Act, which Strickland signed into law last month in what he said was an effort to combat childhood obesity.

The measure requires schools to offer healthier options for food and beverages sold in schools, including from vending machines.

Reade and Olshefski were rankled by the bill's additional requirement that schools provide at least 30 minutes of physical activity each school day aside from recess beginning in the 2011-12 school year.

Districts can apply for a waiver of the physical activity requirement, as was the case when the PLSD recently received a one-year waiver from a state mandate to institute all-day kindergarten at the outset of the 2011-12 school year. In that case, the district argued that all-day kindergarten would increase district costs by $1.4-million for staffing and classroom space alone in the first year of implementation.

Reade and Olshefski said the Healthy Choices law is another example of state government placing costly requirements on districts at a time when state funding to schools is decreasing and the effectiveness of the new programs is unproven.

"They tell us every child needs to exercise 30 minutes," Reade said. "We can't lengthen the school day because we can't afford it. All our 21st Century Learning (a new district initiative to educate students for the jobs of the 21st century) just went out the window."

Olshefski backed Reade's call for an audit of the mandates, adding, "Let's be the squeaky wheel."

She also said schools can't be held accountable for child obesity because much of the problem stems from lifestyles and eating habits practiced elsewhere.

"It's not what happens at school that's the problem. It's what happens at home. My son's probably popped his first can of Mountain Dew already," she said during the 9 a.m. meeting.

Officials at Strickland's office on Friday June 25 bristled at the notion the governor has lobbed unfunded mandates on districts such as Pickerington.

Amanda Wurst, a spokeswoman for the governor, said the Healthy Choices bill is a pilot program districts can opt into, as opposed to a mandate.

"School districts could opt out," Wurst said. "Even if districts wanted to opt into the 30-minute physical activity period, they could opt out of another component which calls for body-mass index screenings of students."

As for all-day kindergarten, Wurst cited the waiver option, which Pickerington has obtained from the Ohio Department of Education. She said the department will evaluate waiver requests on a yearly basis, so additional waivers or assistance with transitioning to all-day kindergarten could be granted.

As for funding, she said the state will provide financing as the program is implemented.

"That plan will be phased in over the next 10 years and there will be funding from the state over that particular time," she said. "The state also has changed the way it funds kindergarten students.

"In the past, the state would fund kindergartners as one-half a student. We increased that to count kindergartners as a full student."

She defended all-day kindergarten as a step to improve the quality of Ohio's education.

"That was part of the governor's education reform package that passed last year," she said. "The state found research and evidence of what would give all students, no matter where they are in the state of Ohio, a high-quality education that will enable them to be competitive with any other students around the world.

"The research significantly supports all-day kindergarten as laying a foundation in early-child learning," Wurst said.

For their part, board members and district officials have ratcheted up their disapproval of the state's funding cuts to the district and new, unfunded requirements in recent months. Board President Lee Gray repeatedly said at a June 14 meeting that many of the impending shortfalls faced by the district are due to "a whole bunch of money that we have absolutely no control over that has gone away."

During that same meeting, the board revealed it's considering a November renewal levy.

Under the plan, which has yet to be approved by the board, the district would replace operating levies passed by local voters in 1980 and 1985 that originally brought in a combined 14.3 mills. Due to tax reduction factors brought on over time by state law, those levies currently are collected at a total of 4.77 mills.

Renewing the two levies would restore millage to 14.3 mills, increasing the amount collected by 9.53 mills.

As a result, homeowners in the district each year would pay an additional $292 per $100,000 of home valuation.

The board is expected to discuss levy options again during a July 6 special meeting, scheduled for 8:30 a.m. at the district's office, 100 East St.

A decision on the scope of the levy is expected this month. The district has until Aug. 4 to file ballot language with the Fairfield County Board of Elections.

nellis@thisweeknews.com