THE BLADE/DAVE ZAPOTOSKY
The Toledo Board of Education is likely to decide today to ask school district voters to approve a substantial property tax increase this November. It’s too early for The Blade, or anyone else, to take a formal position on the proposal. But it is not too early to launch an urgent community conversation about Toledo Public Schools, its achievements, and its financial needs.
Board members are expected to seek a five-year, 5.8-mill levy. That tax boost would cost the owner of a $100,000 home in the district another $203 a year. TPS has not gotten new money from local taxpayers since 2001.
TPS would apply 4.3 mills of the new tax to operations, notably a restoration of bus transportation services that were slashed in 2010 amid the Great Recession. The district also wants more flexibility to offer higher pay to attract and retain talented teachers and principals. The remaining 1.5 mills of the tax would go to capital needs, such as upgraded technology and maintenance and improvement of school facilities.
In a meeting Monday with The Blade’s editorial board, TPS Superintendent Romules Durant noted that even the youngest students who live as far as two miles from their schools must walk to and from classes each day. The district no longer subsidizes the cost of transportation for high school students on Toledo Area Regional Transit Authority buses. If voters approve the millage, he said, TPS would resume transporting elementary school students who live more than a mile from school, and would give older students more busing options.
During the recent brutal winter, Mr. Durant said, concerns for students’ safety on their way to and from school caused TPS to cancel classes on more days — 13 — than other area districts with better bus transportation. Although those days were made up after a fashion, with shorter vacations, longer class hours, and take-home “blizzard bags” of work, fewer disruptions to the school year would have been better for students.
Mr. Durant said TPS also needs to be able to pay its best teachers and administrators better, to keep them from leaving for districts in suburban Toledo and elsewhere that offer them as much as $20,000 more a year. TPS’ teacher salary scale, he added, trails not only the pay scales in suburban districts but also those in all but one of Ohio’s largest urban districts. That gap, he said, limits the district’s ability to hire the brightest young teachers.
Although the recession is officially over and the TPS budget is balanced, the district’s finances remain perilous. The city’s housing market has been slow to recover, keeping home values and thus the local property tax base sluggish. And TPS Treasurer Matthew Cleland notes that state government’s disinvestment in public education in recent years means that the district will get less state aid in the next school year than it got in 2009.
Voter rejection of the TPS tax, Superintendent Durant warned, would hamper the district’s continued execution of its transformation plan, which has improved student achievement in many areas. School board president Cecelia Adams said a “no” vote would risk city property values as well as student success.
Still, the campaign won’t be easy: Although TPS voters approved a school tax renewal last year, they rejected a proposed tax increase in 2012. Toledo voters are likely to face millage requests from at least three other local institutions this year, running the risk of “ballot fatigue,” however valid the requests.
That’s why the community conversation about the TPS tax needs to start now. District officials will need to make their most compelling case. District voters will need to keep an open mind.