School boards must be better stewards of hard-earned urban tax dollars

Passage of all the school levies on the ballot in Dayton, Columbus, Toledo, and Youngstown is a good sign of increasing support for education where it's needed most. The Gadfly knows that school districts don't always spend wisely or frugally but we also know that, in Ohio's largest and most economically depressed urban areas, public schools are getting hammered financially. They need the money. The success of levies in these four cities stands in contrast to the mixed bag of results in the 237 issues statewide.

Results are especially mixed in the suburbs, where upwardly mobile voters once helped with ballot-box success. For example, in suburban Columbus, which arguably has faired better economically than the rest of the state, four of eight levy requests were shot down. It's also useful to contrast Dayton, where a levy is needed just to keep the district afloat, and the effort in Columbus, where the money will be used to push the district forward, in part by hiring more teachers and establishing special college-prep schools.

Here's a look at the issues voters approved in Columbus, Dayton, Toledo, and Youngstown:

  • Columbus voters approved a 8.96-mill issue that combines a 7.85-mill operating levy (three years) and a 1.13-mill bond issue for 24 years. The operating levy will pay for restoring one period cut from the school day, hiring more teachers and counselors, and opening four regional college-prep schools. The bond issue will pay to replace or renovate 10 to 12 school buildings and will buy buses, textbooks, and computers. Even if the issue passes, the district will have to close six schools by June 2011 and make $76 million in yet-to-be-specified budget cuts through June 2013 (see here).
  • In Dayton, the business community got behind the 4.9-mill levy and raised $384,000 to promote it (see here). Failure would have meant further cuts in the district, which has already eliminated $77 million in expenses (including 1,000 jobs) during the last decade (see here). In fact, the new operating levy is the first in Dayton since 1992.
  • Toledo voters approved two levies-a 4.8-mill, 10-year, $15.7-million emergency operating levy renewal for staff, textbooks, utilities, and other expenses, and an 0.7-mill, 28-year, $37-million bond reauthorization to refurbish buildings (see here).
  • In Youngstown, after turning down three straight operating levies, voters approved a 9.5-mill, four-year emergency operating levy to raise $5.3 million a year for general operations (see here). Even with the new levy, however, district officials say they will need to make further cuts.

No matter whether new money helps propel a district forward or simply plugs leaks, it's incumbent on city school boards to appreciate that residents have very pressing needs for their money-like food, shelter, and heat. Even the few extra dollars a month that most levies cost are probably already budgeted by families. Now, with the national economy in the tank and city dwellers often in even narrower financial straits, the hard-earned dollars they have now agreed to provide their schools should be respected by district bureaucrats.

Ohio's big city districts cannot continue business as usual, like paying to keep open half-empty school buildings. With roughly 80 percent of a district's budget going to fund personnel, boards must get smarter about who they hire and retain as teachers as well as how much they pay. For example, districts have to be smarter about awarding tenure. Too many teachers are kept on staff even though they shouldn't be in a classroom. In Ohio, districts can let go any teacher for any reason during the first few years, although few districts actually exercise this authority. Too often this reluctance leads to poor teaching and kids suffer. Districts also should look at the private sector for help, especially for non-classroom related jobs. In Columbus, for example, the district has hired a private consultant to help its food service break even and that effort could include privatizing the entire operation.

And, the time is now for school districts to work with decent charter schools that are also working to serve these community's neediest children. For example, the Columbus City Schools can use their new buses to pick up charter students who also need to get to school safely and on time, while Dayton might consider using some of its citizens' tax dollars to offer professional development opportunities to charter teachers as well as their own.

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