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Published: Sunday, 5/20/2012 - Updated: 2 years ago

COMMENTARY

TPS tax hike joins crowded ballot

BY DAVID KUSHMA
BLADE EDITOR

There's never a good time to ask voters to raise their taxes. And now might seem even worse than usual.

Our community still lags most of the rest of the country in recovering from the Great Recession. Local voters face a lengthening list of likely tax requests this November. Yet Toledo Public Schools wants city residents to approve new operating money for the district for the first time in a dozen years.

You don't need to remind Toledo Schools Superintendent Jerome Pecko that city voters rejected two TPS tax pleas just two years ago. Yet he says the school system has no choice but to press its case now.

With the permanent property tax increase TPS seeks, school officials say, the district can balance its budget for years, build on the success of its year-old transformation plan, and introduce appealing new services. Without it, they warn, TPS will regress to the dark days of larger classes and big cuts to essential programs and services.

"Quality education isn't free," Mr. Pecko told me. "These are important things for our children and our families. We'll tell the TPS story and hope we're able to sell the community on it."

Adds Toledo Board of Education President Lisa Sobecki: "We have to have new money. This is the most critical ask by the district in probably 20 years."

The 6.9 mill property tax increase for TPS would cost the owner of a typical Toledo home, worth $60,000, another $126.79 a year -- or, as district officials put it, 35 cents a day. It would raise about $18.5 million a year in new revenue once it takes full effect in 2014, within a general fund that now amounts to about $336 million.

A poll conducted for TPS this month concludes that voters are more likely to back the tax proposal once they are told of recent school system reforms. These include the conversion of district elementary schools to neighborhood schools that enroll students in kindergarten through eighth grade, new measures to improve schools whose students are performing badly, and new applications of technology that enable all students to take high-school and even college classes that formerly were limited by physical availability.

Among 300 city voters who got such information, nearly half said they would support a levy along the lines the district seeks, while a third were opposed and the rest were undecided. But the poll also suggests that the tax proposal is especially unpopular among white voters, men, and Republicans. And black voters are expressing more skepticism than in previous school tax campaigns.

The plan faces other obstacles. TPS is likely to share the ballot this November with requests for property-tax increases or renewals by the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library, Imagination Station, and Lucas County Children Services, and perhaps Metroparks of the Toledo Area and a separate campaign to improve city parks and recreation programs. And these are just the proposals we know about now.

At what point do hard-pressed city voters throw up their hands and decide they can't or won't support any of the tax measures? Mr. Pecko says simply: "I can't tell [other institutions] not to go on the ballot."

Mr. Pecko says the school district looks to raise $200,000 for a "very aggressive" levy campaign, with the slogan "TPS Proud." TPS has lined up support from such civic heavyweights as Toledo Mayor Mike Bell and University of Toledo President Lloyd Jacobs. School officials also may involve district students in the campaign, encouraging them to share their success stories.

TPS officials can claim, correctly, that the district's financial problems are largely the result of decisions by Gov. John Kasich and the General Assembly to slash $1.8 billion in aid to public schools to balance the state budget, to eliminate the state inheritance tax and reimbursement of personal property-tax revenue to local districts, and to refuse to start to restore the aid cuts as the state's fiscal picture improves. Good luck, though, expecting city taxpayers to show much sympathy for that argument.

Many voters may resist the TPS tax because it is a continuing levy, not subject to future voter renewal. A district as confident in its successes as TPS claims to be shouldn't be afraid to ask voters to affirm its performance in several years.

The district can show that school unions and top administrators have made big financial sacrifices to keep the school budget solvent, and insist that the new money won't go to employee salaries. But because workers' pay and benefits amount to nearly 80 percent of district spending, some voters are likely to demand even more concessions before they will support a tax hike.

District officials say the tax increase will pay for a new program for gifted and talented elementary students, preservation of just-restored sports, a new elementary school that emphasizes science and technology, expansion of music instruction in elementary grades, and the start of academic magnet programs at each of the city's six comprehensive high schools.

Above all, TPS will have to shake the label of a failing school system -- to demonstrate that it is making appreciable academic improvement and can make even more with additional resources, and that it won't revert to bad old habits with new money. The most compelling argument the district can offer is that the quality of the city's public schools is key to attracting and keeping residents and job-creating businesses, and to preserving home values.

Let's hope TPS can make a credible case even to tax-averse Toledo voters that it deserves their help to continue moving forward. The district's ability to do so will affect the future of the city and its schools well beyond November.

David Kushma is editor of The Blade.

Contact him at: dkushma@theblade.com



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