New school funding system won’t make the state budget

Four out of the six public school districts in Washington County would have seen increased support from the state with passage of the Cupp-Patterson school funding formula, but it now appears unlikely that the 133rd Ohio General Assembly will take up the bill.

The Fair School Funding Formula, as the effort has been titled, is the result of a 15-month effort to fix the way state money is distributed to school districts. The system in use, it is universally agreed by both school professionals and lawmakers, is a mess. A legal challenge 20 years ago led to a declaration by the Ohio Supreme Court that the funding formula violates the state constitution’s direction that the state is required to provide an “efficient” education system.

When the new formula was applied as a model, lawmakers began to see flaws. The formula uses enrollment as a departure point and bases state aid to individual districts on a basic amount intended to reflect the cost of educating a student in Ohio, with additional amounts called “add-ons” — expenses involving educating gifted students, special needs students and extracurricular activities such as athletics — and adjustments to reflect the ability of the community to provide local support, a formula that includes the district property tax base and its residents’ income.

Adjusting districts to the new formula yielded some unexpected results, with some impoverished districts with declining enrollment losing money while some growing affluent suburban schools gained.

Ohio Rep. Don Jones, R-Freeport, who represents part of Washington County, said Tuesday it appears unlikely the assembly will take up the bill in this session.

“We started asking questions that they (the Cupp-Patterson team) hadn’t thought about,” he said. “It’s a good starting point, and some people say it finally funds schools the way they should be, but I want to see where the money is going, and some of the bigger wealthier schools are getting more just because their enrollment is going up.”

Jones said applying the new formula is projected to add $1.2 billion to the state budget over the next two years. The K-12 education budget for fiscal year 2018-19 was about $8.165 billion.

Marietta City Schools Board of Education Vice President Russ Garrison offered a presentation at Monday night’s board meeting to explain the differences between the current system and the Fair School Funding proposal.

“In the system we have, it’s really hard to understand where anything comes from,” he said. “The new one has a basis for where your numbers come from. It’s based on what students need to succeed, it assesses the community’s capacity to pay, it treats districts and taxpayers fairly. It starts out by defining what it costs to educate a child in each community.”

Garrison pointed out that the current formula, to the extent that it works at all, is only applied to 20 percent of the state’s school districts. The remaining districts are either on a cap – meaning a ceiling on state aid is in effect – or a guarantee, meaning that a floor is set below which state aid will not fall.

Under the new proposal, 84 percent of the districts would be on the formula, he said.

A base cost is calculated per student, to which is added unique characteristics of each district accounting for percentage of students in poverty, preschool and special education needs, gifted student programs, transportation, open enrollment and community schools that siphon away students, and career tech institutes. The new formula, he said, also accounts for local income as well as property tax values.

Marietta treasurer Frank Antill said the district would stand to receive more than $700,000 in additional state aid over the next two years. Figures distributed a few weeks ago indicate that four of the six districts in Washington County would benefit from the formula, which would have a neutral effect on two, Warren and Wolf Creek local schools.

Belpre City Schools treasurer Lance Erlwein expressed profound disappointment Tuesday at the likelihood that lawmakers won’t act in this session on the funding proposal.

“This is the first time in 20 years we’ve seen bipartisan support on a bill that would have helped local taxpayers,” he said. “This formula takes into account their incomes, it’s not 100 percent based on property taxes.”

Belpre is the only district in the county on a cap rather than a guarantee, which places a significant restriction on state aid. The new formula would have put an additional $600,000 into the district.

“If this doesn’t happen now, we’ll probably go another 25 years before we see another meaningful analysis,” Erlwein said. “A lot of people who worked on this for a year and a half told me this is the last time – for some it’s their second or third effort at fixing this, look at the time and effort.”

Erlwein said if the Cupp-Patterson system has some flaws, it would be better to fix them than it would be to throw the effort out.

“Under the current formula, we have something more like a patchwork of fixes,” he said. “We’re on the cap because they’ve compared us to property values statewide, which shows us as a wealthier district, but in reality if any of those politicians come down here and look, we’re certainly no wealthier than any of the other districts in the county except on paper. This plan would have removed the cap, just put us back even, and I would have taken that, not felt a bit bad about it.”

The current system is a zero-sum game in which the losses of one district can become wins for another with no apparent rationale, Erlwein said.

“If a district in Toledo, for example, loses two power plants (and enrollment goes down), we would get richer – and nothing’s changed for us,” he said, referring to the manner in which funds can be redistributed under a global education budget. “If (the new formula) is going to cost too much, tweak it some, if they think the really rich districts are getting too much. I’d rather be a rational loser than a lucky winner.”

Jones said he doesn’t believe that if the assembly doesn’t deal with the issue in this session the work will be lost entirely.

“There’s a lot to it, we’re still looking at it. I talked with (Robert) Cupp last week, and he said it’s a good starting point,” Jones said. “The atmosphere in Columbus is a lot different now, with a new governor and speaker, it’s ripe for change, an attitude that we’ve got things we need to fix. The can’s been kicked down the road on this, and as a legislative body, if we don’t come up with a solution, we haven’t done our job. There’s not one person in the legislature that doesn’t want to fix this, we’re just trying to get it the right way.”

The legislature has until June 15 to approve a state budget, which becomes effective for the two fiscal years starting July 1.

Garrison told the Marietta board meeting Monday night to keep pressure on elected officials.

“Call your representatives, make some noise, urge them to get the will to step up and do it,” he said. “This is really a generational issue. People who were kids when the DeRolph decision (which found the funding formula unconstitutional in 1997) are middle-aged now. We stand to lose the next generation if we don’t act now. It a matter of having the will to step up and treat education in a fair way.”

Cupp-Patterson Fair School Funding Formula

• First substantial attempt in 20 years to change the way schools in Ohio are funded by the state.

• Fifteen months of collaborative, bipartisan work that included extensive consultations with school personnel.

• Used as its departure point a determination of what it costs to educate an individual student in each district, rather than setting a global budget and dividing it up according to an outdated and unconstitutional set of calculations.

• House Speaker Larry Householder, R-Glenford, District 72, indicates it probably will not be taken up as a bill in this session.

Source: Time research.

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