ike most school districts in Ohio, times are especially tough right now for Cincinnati Public Schools (CPS). The district is scrambling to organize a balanced budget for the upcoming academic year, while attempting to avoid cutting as many extracurricular activities and jobs as possible.
Due to the recession and declining tax revenues, the state of Ohio scrambled to find enough funding for K-12 programs, with Gov. Ted Strickland pushing a controversial plan to rely on proceeds from video lottery terminals, an unstable source that could put the programs at risk, critics say.
Meanwhile, CPS and other districts got unexpected bad news when Duke Energy recently announced it would contest its latest personal property tax valuations with state regulators, which means a 40 percent decrease in what Hamilton County districts thought they would get — a drop of $15 million they had counted on. As a result, CPS has had little luck in finding extra funds to avoid more cuts.
Help might be on the way, however, in the form of a citizen-led movement that is gaining momentum in southwest Ohio.
Prepare the Future Ohio is an organization that is lobbying for state officials to provide equal educational opportunities and funding for public schools across Ohio.
“We are a grassroots movement that deals with equality in education,” says Charles Wallner, supporter of Prepare the Future Ohio. “We are actively investing in the education reform of Ohio schools.”
One reform they desperately want to achieve is changing the way Ohio school districts are funded.
“Ohio has a broken system in regards to how they fund their schools,” says Dr. Gary Percesepe, executive director of Prepare the Future Ohio. “The system that is currently used is outdated, irrational and flat out unfair.”
Now, Ohio public schools are funded with a combination of revenue from local property taxes and funds from the state. In many cases, this has led to unequal education because some communities raise more revenue from property taxes than others.
Typically, this model leaves poorer, urban districts — like Cincinnati’s — out in the cold.
“Communities like Dublin, Ohio (suburb of Columbus) are able to raise more revenue from property taxes than communities in Appalachia,” Percesepe says. “This causes disparities in the quality of education because more affluent communities, where their property value is higher, are able to raise more revenue for their schools than communities where their property value is low.”
School districts that don’t get as much money from property taxes usually do get more funds from the state, but there is only a limited amount of money that is available, and not enough to offset the disparities.
“If one community gets 80 percent of its funding from the state, then that is a large portion of the available funds that is gone,” Wallner says. “There is only a limited amount of money the state has to fund schools in Ohio each year and once that money is gone, it is gone.”
Many argue this system is unfair, not only because it allows children from wealthier communities to receive a better education, but also because it doesn’t take into account the average income of families when deeming how much money each school district will get from the state.
“Two years ago Cincinnati was rated the third poorest city in the nation,” Wallner says. “With the formula Ohio uses to determine funding for schools, Cincinnati is ranked among the top nine wealthiest school districts in the state. It is right next to Worthington, Ohio (another Columbus suburb), and Worthington is one of the richest communities in Ohio.”
The median income for a family in Worthington is around $83,000 a year, while the average income for a family living in Cincinnati is around $37,500 a year.
The reason Cincinnati is ranked as high as Worthington is because of the property value of its corporate buildings located downtown.
“As a result of this unfair formula, we only get 30 percent of funding from the state, while cities like Cleveland get 70 percent,” says Jeffrey Stec, supporter of Prepare the Future Ohio. “The sad part is they do not take into affect our poverty rate, average family income or our low home ownership rate.”
For Cincinnati schools especially, this form of funding has had a crippling affect.
CPS is in the midst of trying to figure out their budget for next year and has recently learned that Duke Energy will be withholding millions of dollars in property tax payments as they dispute the way their property is valued.
This is going to result in a $7.8 million loss for the district.
“For Cincinnati Public Schools this revenue loss is going to result in layoffs of teachers and administrators, larger classroom sizes, the cutting of extracurricular activities and the cutting of transportation for students,” Wallner says.
With property value disputes like this and funding issues from the state, school districts in Ohio have become dependent on passing property tax levies to fund their schools.
“School levies have been considered the centerpiece of funding Ohio’s school system,” Percesepe says. “However, 50 percent of levies in Ohio fail and for many communities it takes years to pass one.”
For example, Findlay, Ohio, recently passed a school levy for the first time in 35 years, according to Percesepe.
What might be the most confusing part about the way Ohio schools are funded is the fact that the Ohio Supreme Court has ruled four times in the last 18 years that the way schools are funded is unconstitutional.
“Since 1991 the Ohio Supreme Court has declared that the formula used to fund Ohio schools is unconstitutional, but nothing continues to be done,” Percesepe says. “We have had a whole generation of students who have been educated under this system and it will continue to stay that way until we, as a community, say enough is enough.”
Prepare the Future Ohio is dedicated to this cause and already has started efforts in Ohio to educate citizens on the issues and get people to become more active.
On June 29 they organized a public reception to discuss the topic and plan to hold similar events in the future.
“We engaged in a constructive conversation about public education in Cincinnati and in the state of Ohio and had a great turnout,” Percesepe says. “On our Web site, we have over 1,000 supporters from Ohio and plan to have 4,000 Ohio supporters by the end the year.”
The group encourages citizens to become supporters of the movement and spread the word to their family, friends and co-workers. Anyone who wants to become involved can register via the group’s Action Network, register to vote and send an e-mail to their elected official telling them that they’ve joined Prepare the Future Ohio.
“If the public gets involved in this they can bring moral pressure to our leaders and make a huge difference,” Stec says. “Whatever education we chose for our children and grandchildren today will define what our society will look like in the future and if you do not get involved you will miss out on shaping that.”
For more information on the PREPARE THE FUTURE OHIO visit its Web site at www.preparethefuture.org/ohio.