Friday, Mar 23, 2018
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The hole in the TPS plan

THE Toledo Public Schools are asking a lot of taxpayers, pupils, and parents as the district seeks to avert a fiscal crisis. But school officials are far less forthcoming about the comparable financial sacrifices they expect district employees - and themselves - to make in response to the emergency. Until they provide such details, neither the district's proposed tax increase nor its budget plan merits public support.

Lame-duck Superintendent John Foley is pushing all the hot buttons in outlining an array of possible spending cuts to eliminate a projected $30 million budget deficit in the next school year. School sports could disappear. Libbey High School, Toledo Technology Academy, and Toledo Early College High School could close.

Pupil transportation could be curtailed drastically. School lunches could cost more. Pupils could get fewer new textbooks. Among other items threatened with extinction: school crossing guards and resource officers, elementary summer school, and the district's subsidy for school uniforms. In addition to 45 jobs the district would eliminate because of declining pupil enrollment, Mr. Foley's proposal could cut another 15 jobs in the central office and five in the treasurer's division.

Laying out such options is a useful, if scary, exercise. It makes clear what the school system would look like if voters reject a TPS proposal on the May 4 ballot for a new 0.75 percent tax on earned income. That tax would cost someone who earns $34,000 - roughly Toledo's median household income - $255 a year. If voters enact the tax, the amount of spending the district would have to cut would drop from $30 million to $17.5 million.

But a key item is missing from the TPS budget plan. From the beginning, Toledo Mayor Mike Bell has made specific pay and benefit concessions from municipal employees a central element of his strategy for erasing the city's deficit. Mr. Foley barely mentioned employee givebacks during his budget presentation last week.

Aside from the job cuts, the superintendent said, the district is proposing additional reductions to its unions during bargaining this month. But he said he couldn't discuss those matters publicly out of "respect for the integrity of good-faith negotiations." The district "will continue to negotiate with all bargaining units collaboratively and not in the media," Mr. Foley asserted.

That's a cop-out. A taxpayer whom the district is asking to shell out hundreds of dollars a year in new taxes has a right to know now what the district intends to do to cut its labor costs. So does a parent whose child's school is threatened with shutdown or the loss of programs.

The notion that contract negotiations are solely the "collaborative" business of the district and its unions reflects the district's bunker mentality and penchant for excessive secrecy. So does the fact that the school system has scheduled just one public hearing on the proposed spending cuts before the Board of Education votes on them. The board refused to hear public testimony at last week's meeting. School officials prohibited employees from publicly discussing the proposed elimination of athletics.

TPS can make a credible case that it needs new revenue. It has not asked for new taxes since 2001. The deep recession has depressed both state aid and local property tax collections. The federal stimulus money the district relies on will go away in a few years.

At the same time, the cuts the district is proposing, while painful, do appear reasonably to protect classroom instruction and basic programs. But the district's ability to build support for the tax increase is hampered by its chronic unwillingness to take its constituents into its confidence unless it is forced to.

As it attacks the budget dilemma, school leaders should borrow a theme from their city counterparts: equality of sacrifice. When the district can show that its employees, from the executive offices down, are giving up as much as it expects taxpayers and pupils to give up, its fiscal program will be worth supporting - and not until then.

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