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Published: Wednesday, 8/11/2004

Lake Schools' crucible

SCHOOL-financing reform is a yawner for many Ohioans, despite the loud creaking sound of a system in disrepair. Only 25 percent of school levies passed at the special August school elections - just 15.5 percent if renewals are excluded.

In the Lake Local district, the issue of school finance is up close and personal. Responding to the defeat of an 11-mill operating levy, the school board first canceled sports and other extracurricular activities to pare $1.2 million from a projected $2 million deficit. Angry citizens accused the board of trying to strong-arm them into voting for another levy in November. After a few days of reflection, the board decided to consider an income tax option instead.

Plainly, the cancellation of extracurricular activities, especially high school football, had its possibly intended result. Sometimes, people need what is crudely referred to as Size Nine motivation.

Twin brothers Matt and Marshall Sevenhof, anticipating defeat of the levy, made arrangements before the vote to move with their father to Pemberville, so they will not miss out on their senior year of football. Nine other football players are looking for new temporary homes in other school districts so they also can play this fall.

Unfortunate as this is, for both the district and young athletes who might languish next year in temporary exile, one has to wonder how Lake voters thought it would turn out otherwise. Does it always take such draconian measures to prod school voters into supporting an income tax or a new millage? Would they prefer that cuts be made in math, science, or other academic subjects? If so, how many would make arrangements for their children to live in other districts to get the classes they need for college admission and their future careers?

Extracurricular activities are a vital part of school life and should not be held hostage. But classroom education is the principal reason for operating schools, and the Lake Local board has set the proper priorities. One could argue that the board and administrators should have kept a better handle on their budget, but there has been no new operating levy since 1992. Although voters have supported renewals and capital improvement levies, the district has a record of strong opposition to new operating levies. Unfortunately, building improvements also entail the spending of money for maintenance, and do nothing to cut operating deficits.

In Ohio school financing, there is no free lunch - and by now, voters should know there is no pot of school revenue gold waiting for them at the end of the state lottery rainbow.

The money problems, if left to fester, could have a deleterious effect on the quality of Lake Schools and the rite of passage to young adulthood that high school education can provide. Some of the damage that may result from the latest levy defeat could be permanent. These are factors that voters must consider when they reject property tax levies, which at least have revenue stability to recommend them. The income tax is a partial option, though not one widely embraced by Ohio school boards.

Ohio, which lags behind other large industrial states in educational outcomes, could correct a system that tends to beggar many school districts. The way to do that is to put strong pressure on state legislators and the governor to end their reliance on a Band-Aid approach to school financing. Until then, in the Ohio scheme of things, the property tax is still king. That means that voters seeking the best for their kids and their community may have to vote for a tax they cordially detest.



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