News: Money and Politics

Both come into play on school tax levy

If the tax levy for Cincinnati Public Schools (CPS) passes, it's going to hurt. It's a big chunk of money. But not passing it is going to hurt, too, because that money is essential, according to the district's school board and administration.

The district has worked hard to move from the lowest state rating — academic emergency — to become the second-highest rated urban school district in the state, second only to Akron.

The 9.95-mill levy on the Nov. 6 ballot won't buy any new goodies; it will simply keep the district from going into the red during the 2007-2008 school year.

The difficult choice facing voters is the fault of the state legislature: For 12 years it has refused to change the state's reliance on property taxes for school funding, even though the Ohio Supreme Court has found it unconstitutional.

City Councilwoman Leslie Ghiz, a Republican, has made opposition to the levy part of her re-election campaign.

"My issue is that they're coming out two and a half months before an election and they're like, 'Oh no, we're $79 million in the hole, and we'd like to put a 9.95-mill levy on the ballot and we want property owners to make up the majority of that debt,' " Ghiz says. "And they won't tell us how they're spending money. We're just told, 'We want you to raise it to the tune of about $300 per $100,000 of house.'

That's a lot. The average home in the city is $125,000 to $150,000, so you're looking at approximately a $500 tax increase in property tax on houses that are already over-assessed as it is."

Seems like a reasonable argument — as long as you don't dig any deeper than the surface.

Get the data
Eileen Cooper-Reed, president of the school board, bristles at Ghiz's assertions.

"This is a political year, and this is one of the reasons I hate that we have to do a levy when people are running for office, because people use it as fodder and don't allow us to actually educate the community," she says. "They politicize it. That's what I believe she's doing. She hasn't come and talked to us about this. Until she gets the data, I really don't want to respond to her criticisms."

Ghiz's analysis ignores the realities of how public schools are funded in Ohio, according to CPS Treasurer Jonathan Boyd.

"The revenues generated at the local level remain flat," he says. "They do not grow. They're not sensitive to inflationary increases like the city's earning tax. Because of the way the state has developed its funding formula ... Cincinnati is considered to be property rich because we have a relatively high amount of commercial real estate compared to other districts. That doesn't help our homeowners because the burden is still very high on them. Our funding is predicated on the laws which our legislature passes. Those laws indicate that schools in the state of Ohio since 1976 have been in a cycle to have to go to back to voters every three or four years."

Ghiz doesn't say if she's talked to anyone at CPS about its funding sources such as grants, private sector support, state versus local revenue. Nor does she say if she has requested information about spending practices. Immediately qualifying her statement by stating that the teachers aren't responsible for how the money is spent, she has a list of accusations and suggestions for the school district.

"I think there are a lot of things that can be done," she says. "The school board — what they need to do is they need to go out there and say, 'This is how we're spending money. City Council, we could use your help on this, this or this.' "

But, in addition to meeting regularly with city council's Education, Health and Recreation Committee, CPS representatives already meet with the county and work with a host of private sector partners, including social service groups and public and private businesses, Cooper-Reed says.

Moving up — or out?
More information is needed, Ghiz says.

"They need a comprehensive internal audit," she says. "There's no doubt about it. They've never had a comprehensive internal audit in the last however many years."

But then she points to a report by McKinsey & Co., consultants paid by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which had both criticism and praise for CPS.

"They had the McKinsey report that came out, which basically said the way they do business is completely dysfunctional," Ghiz says. "What they should do is what the city does: put together independent, business-minded citizens to determine what it is we need to do and what is the best way to be spending money and to save money with the least burden to the taxpayer."

The McKinsey report, presented to the board Sept. 5, reviews CPS's central administration. The Gates Foundation was so impressed with the transformation of the five largest traditional high schools in CPS that it asked Superintendent Rosa Blackwell how it could provide more help. The McKinsey report is the result. CPS is embracing the consultants' recommendations, Cooper-Reed says.

"We do need to change the way we do business, and McKinsey is the start of that," she says. "We have some other work to do."

Cooper-Reed points out that in the past seven years — since the last time the district asked for a tax increase — CPS has moved from "academic watch," the state's second-lowest rating, to maintaining "continuous improvement," the middle rating, for three consecutive years.

Janet Walsh, spokeswoman for CPS, says the district has been responsible with tax dollars, implementing centralized textbook purchasing to ensure a consistent curriculum, using volume purchasing discounts, bulk purchasing in the facilities department and leveraging partnerships to bring in needed equipment the district can't afford. Walsh says she and others at CPS are happy to meet with anyone who wants to learn how CPS handles their revenues and expenses.

"My other issue is — and this is my biggest concern — is that we can't give houses away in Cincinnati right now," Ghiz says. "I mean people are trying to sell their homes. We have a school system that is already makes up 60.2 percent of our property tax."

Cooper-Reed believes the biggest concern should be building the kind of school district parents want to utilize. Acknowledging the difficulty of that burden, she asks people to become educated about what's really going on.

"If (Ghiz) wants to get re-elected, that's fine," Cooper-Reed says. "But don't do it on the back of the children at CPS, please." ©

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