At a time when more and more school districts are going to voters for money, the formula used to fund Ohio schools remains as controversial as Ohio Supreme Court decision which ruled it to be unconstitutional in 1997.
Those who took part in a panel discussion Feb. 6 on the Otterbein University campus made it clear that districts have suffered under the model, only made worse by the housing market collapse and financial crisis in 2008.
“The economy has really hurt us,” Westerville schools treasurer Bart Griffith said. “(Former) Gov. Strickland tried to change the formula, but the state just doesn’t have the money to do it. It’s the same problem that Gov. Kasich has right now.”
The Westerville school district is attaching its future to a March levy that would erase some cuts approved last month by the board of education, including all sports and extracurricular activities, changes to busing and the elimination of more than 200 teaching and staff positions.
The 6.9-mill, five-year levy, if approved, is expected to raise $16.5 million per year, according to district figures. It would cost property owners an additional $210 for every $100,000 of home valuation.
Money from the levy would not be collected until 2013.
School leaders have said they need to bridge a $23-million budget deficit after voters rejected a combined 4.06-mill property tax and a 0.5-mill income tax in November.
The “Public School Funding 101” forum attracted enough people to fill most of the seats in the lower half of Riley Auditorium at the Battelle Fine Arts Center.
In about a 30-minute session, David Varda, executive director of the Ohio Association of School Business Officials, laid out the state’s complex school-funding formula, which relies heavily on property taxes. Schools and districts in less-affluent areas receive less money to spend per child than wealthier districts which collect more in property taxes, he said.
What has challenged districts further is House Bill 920, a law passed in 1976 which, in effect, freezes the income a district can receive from a levy the moment it is passes: Income on the voted mills cannot increase due to inflation. The law only allows for increases from new construction.
Westerville levies passed in 2006 and 2009 have already “capped out,” Griffith said.
Opponents argue that H.B. 920 makes schools suffer in a way unlike other areas of government where inflation is recognized and taxes increase with incomes.
Even when home values increase, a school district’s revenue remains the same because of H.B. 920, Varda said. Districts are then forced to return to voters every few years because they cannot meet increases caused by inflation, he said.
In the past 10 years, less than half the number of school levies on the ballot have passed, according to figures from the Ohio Department of Education.
“School boards have no legislative authority,” Varda said. “They must live within the means set up by legislators.”