School funding figures a letdown
State funding would increase for only two area school districts – Belpre and Marietta – over the next two years, according to projections for Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s new school funding plan.
Every other district in Washington, Monroe, Morgan and Noble counties would receive the same amount as this year. Without guaranteed funding amounts ranging from just under $40,000 to more than $3.7 million, those eight districts would actually lose money under the new formula, which takes into account property values, enrollment and economic conditions.
Meanwhile, some wealthier districts saw significant increases, such as Olentangy Local Schools in Delaware County being projected for a 331 percent hike in state aid.
It’s not the result many school officials were expecting.
“As excited as I was last week … I am equally heartbroken for the students in Ohio,” said Wolf Creek Local Schools Superintendent Bob Caldwell.
Caldwell said he doesn’t begrudge Marietta City Schools the additional $868,796 it is projected to receive in the first year of the new biennial budget or Belpre City Schools the $581,310 it would be due. And his frustration with the proposed formula isn’t based solely on Wolf Creek’s flat funding.
He pointed to the Trimble Local school district in Athens County, which has the second-lowest median income in the state, yet it would not see any additional funds during either of the budget years. Caldwell said he doesn’t see how that could happen if personal income levels were taken into account, as the governor said would happen when he introduced the plan last week.
“It clearly remains an unconstitutional funding system,” he said.
The leaders of the local districts that are projected to receive funding increases aren’t ready to celebrate yet.
“I will not believe any increases until I see them in our bank account,” said Belpre Superintendent Tony Dunn in an email to The Marietta Times. “Even then, the State of Ohio is famous for revising budgets mid-stream and reducing the amount of funding to schools in the middle of the fiscal year.”
Belpre was predicted to receive half a million dollars in additional funding a few years ago, something that got a lot of attention in local media, Treasurer Eva Elliott said. But when the budget was finalized, the result was much different.
“If we got an increase, it was so minute you wouldn’t even speak of it,” she said.
Marietta City Schools Superintendent Harry Fleming said he’ll be happy with his district’s funding if it comes to pass, but he found the large increases to some districts and flat funding to others “puzzling.”
“I don’t know how they got from point A to point B,” he said.
After Kasich took office in 2011, the “evidence-based” funding model instituted under his predecessor Ted Strickland’s watch was scrapped and replaced with a “bridge formula” while the administration worked on its own proposal to address the system, ruled unconstitutional because of its reliance on property taxes.
The new plan was unveiled by Kasich at a Jan. 31 meeting of the Buckeye Association of School Administrators in Columbus. He announced his proposal would direct an additional $1.2 billion in state funds over the next two years to education, ensure every district would have the same funding as one with a $250,000-per-student average property valuation and take into account income levels and free and reduced lunch rates as well as property values when determining a district’s wealth.
Dubbed “Achievement Everywhere,” the plan, Kasich said, was intended to provide the resources to allow every child to receive a quality education, no matter where they live.
“I actually thought during the governor’s speech that we met a lot of the criteria as far as low property value, high poverty and annual income,” Frontier Local Superintendent Bruce Kidder said. “I was hoping that for once, Wayne National Forest making up 40 percent of my district would be an asset for me.”
But despite the presence of the national forest, which is not subject to property tax, and Frontier having the lowest three-year average valuation per pupil in the county at $75,995, the new formula allocated $4,217,945 to the district in the first year of the biennial budget, less than it is slated to receive this year. More than $600,000 in guarantee money would ensure the district maintains the same funding level as the current fiscal year.
State aid would increase by more than $180,000 in fiscal year 2015, but the district would still need $424,000 in guarantees to keep its funding flat.
The allocations to the districts do not include transportation or career tech funds, for which statistics were not available this week.
On a conference call with reporters this week, Barb Mattei-Smith, assistant policy director for education with the Governor’s Office of 21st Century Learning, said possible factors in the flat funding for most Washington County districts are an increase in agricultural property valuations and declining enrollment.
One factor in Olentangy’s large increase is its population of more than 16,000 students. Frontier has less than 800 and the largest enrollment in Washington County is Marietta, with 2,880.
One piece of the proposal aimed at the property value issue guarantees all districts will have the same base funding as those with property valuations of $250,000 per student on the first 20 mills they collect in local levy funds. But Tom Gibbs, superintendent of Fort Frye and Warren Local schools, said that actually drops minimum per-student funding to $5,000 instead of the previous $5,732 in place prior to Strickland’s plan.
“They might be making an effort to equalize funding, but they’re equalizing funding … at a figure that is significantly less than it was two biennial budget cycles ago,” he said.
Kasich spokesman Rob Nichols said the $5,732 number was based on 23 mills instead of 20, so districts had to provide a bigger share. In addition, he said, the governor’s new plan decreases money going to administration while increasing aid that directly impacts students.
Gibbs said he did not leave last week’s meeting expecting a huge windfall for either district, but thought they would see modest increases. But like Frontier and Wolf Creek, Fort Frye and Warren would maintain flat funding only because of guaranteed money.
For Warren, the guarantees would total just under $200,000 in fiscal year 2014 and less than $40,000 the following year, meaning “the formula quote-unquote kind of works for Warren,” Gibbs said. But Fort Frye would need more than $600,000 each year to maintain its fiscal 2013 funding level. And Gibbs doesn’t expect such guarantees to be repeated indefinitely.
“There was a clear message from the governor’s office that guarantees are bad, we’re moving away from guarantees,” he said. “I don’t anticipate that Fort Frye’s going to be able to go out and pass a levy and raise that $600,000 very easily.”
Mattei-Smith said the guarantees guard against major “destabilizing” funding shifts. But she added that while the administration was not trying to send a message to districts that guarantees were ending, it is time to start a conversation about them.
“The guarantee really does put money into areas where it’s less needed,” Mattei-Smith said. “Sometimes it means that they’re not doing the kind of changes they need to their infrastructure” to deal with declining enrollment.
While Mattei-Smith did not cite any district specifically, Gibbs said he was “offended” by the implication that “we’re wasting money.”
“I would challenge anyone in the state Department of Education and the governor’s office to come out to the Warren Local school district and give us concrete ideas on ways we could operate more efficiently,” he said.
Gibbs noted Warren is spending well below the state level per pupil and Fort Frye is under the benchmark as well. Yet districts spending one-and-a-half and two times that received significant funding increases.
Kidder said he understands the rationale for eventually eliminating guarantees, but at the same time, “we’ve still got to function.”
More to come
The specific breakdown of the formula has not been released, and it’s something local superintendents and legislators are looking forward to seeing.
Ohio Rep. Andy Thompson, R-Marietta, said he agrees with the idea of money following students and said the overall amount of funding a district gets isn’t the only factor in determining whether a quality education is being provided. Still, he was “somewhat surprised” by the numbers in the projections.
“I’m not happy with the mix as it is,” he said. “I’m trying to understand how he came up with what he did.”
Thompson encouraged constituents to call him with their concerns so he can try to answer their questions or put them in touch with people who can.
“Nothing is final. We’re in the budget process and this is the opening proposal,” he said.
Ohio Rep. Debbie Phillips, D-Albany, said the funding formula “clearly does not” direct money to poorer districts, and she’s concerned there could be more reductions revealed in the actual budget language.
“We really don’t have enough information to know what this (will do) to schools,” she said.
In addition, the projected numbers are incomplete because information to factor in transportation and career tech funds were not available.