Superintendents, legislators meet about school funding concerns

A group of school district administrators from around the region met Friday to compare notes on the new funding formula proposed by Ohio Gov. John Kasich and share their concerns with lawmakers.

Representatives of more than a dozen school districts gathered at the Washington County Career Center for the regular meeting of superintendents in Washington, Guernsey, Monroe and Noble counties whose districts are served by the Ohio Valley Educational Service Center. They were joined by officials from some districts outside that area and three members of the General Assembly.

“There was great dialogue, communication, two ways, between our school officials and our elected officials,” said Chris Keylor, superintendent of the ESC.

Kasich’s initial outline of his plan to address the state’s school funding system – declared unconstitutional because of its reliance on property taxes – was received positively at a Jan. 31 meeting of the Buckeye Association of School Administrators in Columbus. Under the program, dubbed “Achievement Everywhere,” the governor pledged to direct an additional $1.2 billion to education and said that “If you are poor, you’re going to get more. If you are rich, you’re going to get less.”

But when the projections were released a week later, 60 percent of districts found they were in line for flat funding. In Washington County, only Belpre and Marietta City Schools would see increases. Administration officials have suggested declining enrollment and rising property values contributed to the static funding in southeastern Ohio districts.

Washington County’s other four districts would receive the same amount of state aid only because of guarantee money intended to prevent a large drop in funding. But administration officials have emphasized they do not favor continuing such allocations indefinitely.

“This is unfair and unsustainable, and schools must prepare for the phase-out of guarantee funds if Ohio’s system of school funding is to be as fair as it needs to be,” Richard Ross, director of the Governor’s Office of 21st Century Education, said in prepared testimony to the House Finance and Appropriation Committee last week.

A fact sheet released by the governor’s office in conjunction with Ross’ testimony said it is “not realistic to envision that most districts would receive more money than last year” given that the plan “prioritizes students’ needs over building, equipment or adult school district employees.”

But Ohio Rep. Debbie Phillips, D-Albany, said the formula is “fundamentally flawed” because it reduces the foundation amount from $5,732 per student to $5,000 and decreases the basis for the “charge-off” – the amount local districts contribute to that total – from 23 mills to 20.

“Reducing the foundation amount hurts the poor districts. Reducing the charge-off helps the wealthier districts,” she said.

The fact sheet indicates that nearly 63 percent of state formula funds over the next two years go to low-wealth and urban school districts. It also points out that the state’s poorest district in terms of property valuation, Trimble Local in Athens County, would receive $7,678 per pupil in state formula money in fiscal year 2014, more than the 28 wealthiest districts’ per-pupil average combined.

Yet some Washington County superintendents have pointed to Trimble as an example of the flaws in the plan, since that district would not receive an increase in state funding.

Fort Frye and Warren Local Superintendent Tom Gibbs said Friday that it’s no surprise a formula aimed at giving all districts the same base level for funding provides more money to poorer districts, but that doesn’t mean it’s an equitable system.

“Equity doesn’t mean that everyone gets an equal amount,” he said. “Equity means that you redistribute resources … or distribute resources so that you are providing to each child what that child needs to be successful in school.”

Marietta City Schools Superintendent Harry Fleming left the meeting for a while to participate in a conference call organized by the Office of Budget Management and the Governor’s Office of 21st Century Education. He and other superintendents whose districts are in line for an increase were asked to describe their situations and the conditions leading to the increase.

“No one though said that there should be anything done for the 60 percent of districts that received zero,” Fleming said in describing the call to his fellow superintendents Friday. “Until I talked.”

Fleming said he expressed his appreciation for the increased funding, if it comes to pass, but felt the formula should be re-examined.

“The cost of educating all your students is not always based upon the number of students that you have,” he said, noting factors like geography and transportation for districts like Frontier and Switzerland of Ohio Local.

Representatives of some regional districts thanked Fleming for speaking up for Appalachia. Wolf Creek Local Superintendent Bob Caldwell was among them and said superintendents need to convince their counterparts who would receive additional funding that the system is not beneficial overall.

Sen. Lou Gentile, D-St. Clairsville, said Friday that he was disappointed to see only four of the 34 school districts in counties he represents were in line for more money. While he wants to see that change, he said he would also fight to protect the increases for districts like Marietta and Belpre.

Gentile said Friday’s meeting gave him a chance to get feedback from district leaders about the impact of the formula.

“These education leaders are ready to make the case in Columbus on behalf of the children in their districts that this funding formula is unfair in southeast Ohio,” he said.

Gentile and Phillips both said they are optimistic problems can be addressed because Republican lawmakers have also expressed concern over funding projections for schools in their districts.

Sen. Troy Balderson, R-Zanesville, spoke with superintendents Friday as well but had to leave earlier than Gentile and Phillips and was not available for comment Friday afternoon. Ohio Rep. Andy Thompson, R-Marietta, was invited but unable to attend. He has been invited to a future gathering, Keylor said.