Toledo Public Schools wants city voters to approve a substantial, lengthy property tax increase this fall. TPS leaders say the new levy is essential to the district's plan to improve student performance, ensure fiscal stability, and create important programs and services. With reservations, The Blade recommends a YES vote on Issue 20.
TPS seeks a 4.9-mill, 10-year property tax. That's the largest tax measure on this year's county ballot, even after district officials reduced their request from an initial 6.9 mills. And a decade is a long time to make voters wait to pass judgment on how the tax has worked, even after the district agreed to make the levy renewable rather than permanent. City voters rejected two TPS tax proposals in 2010.
If it is approved, the levy would cost the owner of a $100,000 Toledo home about $150 a year. That's a lot of money, but other Ohio districts seek even more: The Cleveland Metropolitan School District is asking voters there to approve a 15-mill, four-year tax.
The tax would give TPS its first new money for operations since 2001. It would raise a projected $13.3 million a year, within a general-fund budget that is currently about $310 million.
TPS executives say they have no choice but to seek a tax increase now, given deep reductions in state and federal aid to schools and stagnant local property values, all caused by the Great Recession. They correctly note that district administrators and school unions have made financial sacrifices in the current budget.
They point to successes that the district's transformation plan has achieved, such as the conversion of district elementary and middle schools to K-8 neighborhood schools, the expansion of course offerings through technology and distance learning, and new measures to improve poorly performing schools.
With new revenue, district officials promise to introduce all sorts of appealing features: academic magnet programs at every city high school, a new program for gifted elementary-school students, a new student discipline program. The district also says it will do more to link teacher evaluations to student performance.
Opponents argue that if city voters reject the levy, TPS will be forced to win further concessions from its unions and make other reforms. They say that the district's evaluation system is too vague to guarantee academic improvement.
These critics assert that the district already has enough money to keep its budget balanced for several years, and would spend revenue from the new levy on pay and benefit increases for TPS employees when union contracts expire next June. The district denies that the new tax money would go to employee salaries.
If voters defeat Issue 20, TPS executives warn they would have to cut spending by $22 million before the next school year. Plunging the district into a fiscal crisis, immediately or in the longer term, is more likely to obstruct than advance its reform efforts. During revenue shortfalls in recent years, TPS laid off teachers in large numbers, increased class sizes, and slashed basic programs to stay afloat.
TPS officials have been distracted from the millage campaign by a controversy over the district's practice of removing standardized test scores of habitually truant students from data they gave the state to compile the annual TPS report card. On and off over the past decade or so, the district would declare those students to have withdrawn, then return them later to the attendance rolls.
That practice had the effect of raising report-card grades for the district and for individual schools. TPS officials deny any deliberate wrongdoing or illegal conduct, and say they got tacit approval from the Ohio Department of Education.
But to his credit, current Schools Superintendent Jerome Pecko properly ended the practice last June and disclosed it publicly. That expression of transparency, unusual among local public officials, deserves voters' appreciation.
The city's economic climate hardly offers favorable conditions for a tax hike. But TPS officials are correct when they observe that the fate of the tax vote will affect residents who don't have children in city schools. The quality of the district's schools largely determines Toledo's ability to attract and keep residents and businesses, and to preserve property values.
It will take a leap of faith among city voters to give TPS the tax increase it wants, but the alternative appears worse. On balance, Issue 20 merits a YES vote.