Local educators react to state budget

As the state budgeting process wound up, school district leaders in Washington County began looking at where their districts stand for state financial support in the coming two years.

Although the overall education budget for the state increased slightly, lawmakers and the governor, after a months-long effort, gave up for the time being on a wholesale revamp of the funding formula, which has been a sore spot with local districts in the state for decades. The current Byzantine method of calculating state grants to districts will remain in place for at least another two years.

Fort Frye Local Schools Superintendent Stephanie Starcher said the budget figures indicate the district will receive about $24,000 more than last year, because of enrollment increases, and about $321,000 from the governor’s special initiative on mental health and wrap-around services for students and families.

“Fort Frye has been focused on mental health and family services, and we’ve already started some of those services,” she said. “We have a full-time therapist from Life & Purpose Behavioral Health, paid for from the general fund, and now we’ll be able to do some other things. That’s wonderful and much-needed, and it shows the legislature and the governor were listening to us. It’s a positive thing.”

The budget includes a special appropriation requested by Gov. Mike DeWine to invest $675 million over two years in providing mental health, family and social services to districts whose students and families are experiencing distress. Washington County districts are among those who have maintained for years that students, particularly in rural and impoverished areas hit hard by the opioid crisis who have unstable or traumatic lives outside school, need help beyond the existing education structure to have a chance at academic success, and schools are the best point of delivery for those services.

DeWine actually got more than the $550 million he initially requested for that appropriation. The funding will be distributed with an emphasis on districts with large numbers of economically distressed students. The schools are expected to partner with local organizations such as alcohol, drug and mental health boards, boards of developmental disabilities, mental health treatment providers, nonprofits with a record of delivering services to children, and other community-based services.

Warren Local Schools Superintendent Kyle Newton said he expects Warren to receive a slight increase in state grant funding but expressed frustration that lawmakers hadn’t dealt with the larger issue of how schools are funded in Ohio.

“… I see a missed opportunity,” he said in an emailed statement. “In a budget year that the state has seen better-than-expected and projected tax revenue along with overall growth, prosperity, and health within the state financially, and not pass a bipartisan-led, educationally-backed, school funding proposal that would have led the state into compliance with the DeRolph (Ohio Supreme Court, 1997) decisions and give school districts a real tool to calculate and forecast funding for the long haul, is extremely disappointing. This current education budget represents the status quo with only minor change and does not answer the bigger educational questions.”

Ohio Rep. Don Jones of District 95, which includes portions of Washington County, said the budget reflects the government’s concern for education. According to the Governor’s Office, the 2020-21 budget of about $69 billion includes $9.3 billion for public education, an increase from the $8.1 billion allocated from general revenue for 2018-19.

“I think there was a consensus that we have to do better for education,” Jones said. “We’ve dropped (in our rankings) among the states, and we’re not proud of that. We’ve got to get away from just state testing and do what’s best for the kids, get them ready for work, trade school, college or the military. And those wrap-around services, that’s big.”

Jones noted that he and District 94 Rep. Jay Edwards also leaned in to help Marietta City Schools get priority with the Ohio Facilities Construction Commission on the district’s proposed $85 million building project. The district Thursday night passed a resolution to put a bond levy for the project on the November ballot.

Marietta treasurer Frank Antill said he preferred to withhold comment on the budget impact until after an information session scheduled for Monday.

Representatives for Frontier and Wolf Creek local schools and Belpre City Schools could not be reached.

Other education provisions in the budget are:

• $1.5 million to train teachers to become certified computer science instructors.

• Established a permanent set of graduation requirements.

• Expanding the Choose Ohio First scholarship program by $12 million to encourage high school graduates to attend Ohio post-secondary schools in science, technology, engineering, math and medicine disciplines.

Michael Kelly can be contacted at mkelly@mariettatimes.com

Ohio state budget highlights

• Overall funding: $69 billion.

• Public education component: $9.3 billion.

• Previous year education allocation from general revenue fund: $8.1 billion.

Source: Ohio Office of the Governor.