After rejecting two levy requests last year, voters in the Lake Local Schools district approved a new three-year property tax -- barely -- last week. But the passage of that millage was an anomaly: More than 80 percent of the school levies on Ohio ballots last week failed.
That outcome does not bode well for the prospects of the far larger number of school levies that will go before voters in November, including a Toledo Public Schools proposal. It shows again the damage done to local school districts by massive cuts in state aid over the past several years.
The Lake district appeared to benefit from its new high school, which is scheduled to open next week. The $25.5 million school, built without local tax revenue, replaces a building that was mostly destroyed by a tornado in June, 2010.
Without waiting for the outcome of last week's millage vote, Lake's school board froze salaries and increased medical costs for teachers. Board members said they wanted to send a message to voters about their willingness to cut spending.
Many other districts across Ohio have had to make similar decisions because of the $1.8 billion reduction in state aid to public schools approved by Gov. John Kasich and the General Assembly in the current two-year state budget. But when further cuts can't be made without unreasonably damaging the quality of classroom instruction, districts also have had to impose new fees and ask taxpayers for politically unpopular millages.
The liberal advocacy group Innovation Ohio likens school funding to a shell game. Mr. Kasich gets credit for balancing the state budget without raising taxes. But the costs of that strategy include big cuts to education, public safety, and other essential public services at the local level. The net gain to taxpayers, the think tank argues, is zero.
School districts continue to suffer from recession-induced declines in the value of local real estate, on which property tax revenue is based. TPS has pared its tax proposal on the November ballot from 6.9 mills to 4.9 mills, and has asked voters to approve a renewable 10-year levy instead of a permanent one.
These were prudent choices. But even the scaled-down TPS plan will be a tough sell: It will cost the owner of a $100,000 home about $150 a year.
Lake Local Schools voters overcame their aversion to higher taxes and supported their school district. But voters in many other districts are unable or unwilling to follow that lead.
The urgent need remains for a thorough, efficient, fair method of state school funding. A program of fiscal austerity that widens the gap between wealthy and worse-off school districts serves the state's educational system poorly.