Budget no cure-all for schools

The third time isn’t a charm for some local officials when it comes to Ohio’s school funding system.

As the full Senate prepares to vote on the biennial budget bill today, school superintendents like Frontier’s Bruce Kidder see the education portion as a step back from a House of Representatives approach many of his counterparts said was at least an improvement over Gov. John Kasich’s initial plan.

“The Senate plan is not very user-friendly to poorer schools,” Kidder said.

Although the Senate’s version directs more than $700 million additional dollars to education than the House’s, including $141.6 million in direct state aid, Frontier would see a drop of more than $440,000 in fiscal year 2014 under the latest proposal. The Senate plan would give the district $560,000 less than the House’s in fiscal 2015.

The funding amounts still represent increases of 1.68 percent and 0.93 percent, respectively, over what the district currently receives. But while Kidder would obviously prefer the larger amount of money, that isn’t the only source of his frustration.

“I haven’t found anybody to explain how they come up with what they’ve come up with,” he said. “You might as well pull a number out of a hat.”

The most important number will be the final one, and Frontier and other districts don’t know what that will be for the new fiscal year that begins July 1. Frontier’s board of education planned to vote on whether to close Lawrence Elementary School or try to transition it into a district-sponsored charter school last month, but not knowing how much money to expect in the upcoming year left too much uncertainty and the school will likely continue to operate as is for another year, Kidder said.

The Senate plan boosts the base per-pupil funding amount from $5,732 in the House plan to $5,745 in fiscal 2014 and $5,800 in 2015, while also raising the cap on how much a district’s state aid amount can grow in a year from 6 percent to 6.25 percent the first year and 10.5 percent the second.

But that doesn’t mean all districts will see more money.

“Forty percent of the poorest rural districts in the state get zero” increase over their current funding, said Lori Snyder-Lowe, superintendent of Morgan Local Schools and president of the Coalition of Rural and Appalachian Schools. Meanwhile, 85 percent of the wealthiest districts will see increases, she said.

The governor’s original plan was met with a backlash when estimates showed 60 percent of districts in the state would be flat funded. The House plan dropped that number by less than half, although a handful of districts – Fort Frye, Wolf Creek and Switzerland of Ohio Local and Caldwell Exempted Village – would have received slightly less than they are currently getting.

Under the Senate plan, those districts will be flat funded, as will Noble Local Schools, which was in line for a 3.8 percent increase in the House plan.

The Belpre, Marietta and Warren districts all max out with a 6.25 percent increase in the first year of the budget under the Senate plan, although Marietta and Warren would actually receive less money than under the House plan. Warren Superintendent Tom Gibbs attributed that in his district to updated enrollment numbers being used.

Marietta and Belpre would also receive the maximum 10.5 percent increase in the second year, while Warren’s funding would rise by more than 8 percent.

Gibbs said the Senate plan works out well for Warren and Fort Frye, where he also serves as superintendent through the end of July. But that doesn’t mean he’s satisfied with the proposal.

“If we look at a completely local perspective, meaning those two school districts, obviously it’s hard to be disappointed,” said Gibbs, who has testified a total of four times before the House and Senate on the topic of school funding this year. “I’m disappointed from the … broader perspective.”

Although the per-pupil funding amount has risen from $5,000 under Kasich’s plan, Gibbs said it still doesn’t keep up with inflation considering the $5,732 is based on numbers from a formula introduced during previous Gov. Ted Strickland’s administration.

He and Snyder-Lowe also said the Senate keeps transportation money within the overall funding formula and therefore subject to the cap. That’s something that hasn’t been done in the past and which CORAS had lobbied to have removed from the new bill.

“In rural areas specifically, we struggle with the high costs of diesel fuel and bus purchases,” Snyder-Lowe says in a letter to Senate President Keith Faber, R-Celina. “We spend hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars a year to transport our students to and from school, while most high-wealth districts have very little investment in transportation.”

The Senate plan also expands the availability of vouchers for kindergarteners and first-graders whose families earn up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level, as well as private vouchers for kids in families earning between 200 and 400 percent. That concept has been opposed by many local school administrators and boards of education.

“In many ways it is taking those public funds and moving them into private hands,” Belpre City Schools Superintendent Tony Dunn said.

Dunn said he doesn’t oppose private education but believes it shouldn’t be funded with public dollars since private schools aren’t subject to the same scrutiny as their public counterparts.

State Sen. Lou Gentile, D-Steubenville, said he’s been hearing concerns from many schools in his district about the voucher expansion at the same time demands on public schools are increasing and funding has been cut.

“It makes it really difficult to see an expansion of vouchers to for-profit entities,” he said.

That and other issues have Gentile expecting to vote against the budget bill today.

“We still have a (school-funding) system that relies heavily on property taxes,” he said. “It’s still not nearly where we need to be.”

Sen. Troy Balderson, R-Zanesville, did not return a call seeking comment Wednesday.