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Published: Thursday, 5/5/2011

School tax flak

Despite big cuts to come in state aid to public schools and dire threats of slashes to local classroom spending, voters in many school districts in northwest Ohio and across the state rejected tax pleas this week.

Voter resistance to taxes remains high as the state's economic recovery stays weak and property values are depressed. School leaders who insist they can't cut any more without damaging the education they offer will have to do so anyway. At the very least, state officials need to do what they can to prevent matters from getting worse.

The Ohio School Boards Association says voters approved 86 of 146 school tax measures statewide on Tuesday -- about three-fifths, a slightly higher rate than in last May's election. This week's figure includes 55 tax renewals, all but four of which passed. But voters supported barely one-third of proposals for tax increases, even when they were presented as emergency levies.

Locally, Sylvania Schools voters bucked the trend and approved a tax increase they turned down last November. School officials had warned that defeat of the proposal would have required further employee layoffs and forced major cuts in spending on classroom instruction, transportation, and student activities, including sports.

Although the Sylvania district has eliminated 120 full-time positions, district unions and other employees accepted economic concessions that helped save other threatened jobs. That example should not be lost on other districts -- and their workers -- when they ask voters to tax themselves more.

Also this week, voters approved emergency levies in the Woodmore and Wauseon districts after defeating tax proposals last year.

At the same time, Maumee City Schools voters rejected a levy request; administrators say they'll have no choice but to try again this year. Voters in the Patrick Henry, Arlington, Benton-Carroll-Salem and Clyde-Green Springs districts also defeated tax issues.

Against that backdrop, the Ohio House is scheduled to vote today on Gov. John Kasich's budget proposal, which would reduce state aid to schools by nearly $1 billion over the next two years. When the expiration of federal stimulus money administered by the state is included, the state school boards association estimates the potential loss to local districts at $3.1 billion. With those sorts of cuts, association executives say, even successful levies will allow many districts to do no more than meet bare-minimum requirements.

The House Republican majority has tweaked the governor's plan to restore some school aid, but largely by shifting money to wealthier districts from poorer ones. Whatever else lawmakers do, this surely is not the time to deprive public schools of even more state support by siphoning money to expansions of charter-school and voucher programs, as Mr. Kasich proposes.

The governor is correct that school districts must find ways to meet their needs by operating more efficiently and cooperatively, rather than expecting a constantly increasing flow of money from taxpayers or Columbus. Advocates of the new state law that greatly restricts the collective-bargaining rights of Ohio public employees say it will allow schools to save money by liberating them from onerous provisions of union contracts.

That argument goes too far; the bargaining law -- if voters allow it to stay in effect -- would do more harm than good. But the results of this week's school tax elections should persuade unions and their allies that merely chanting militant slogans and opting for business as usual isn't likely to get voters to repeal the law this year.

Again, the lessons from the success of the Sylvania Schools millage warrant emulation, by other Ohio districts and their employees.



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