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Published: Sunday, 6/6/2010

Fiscal woes force TPS to retool itself

BY CHRISTOPHER D. KIRKPATRICK
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Toledo Public Schools officials and parents now worry about the dropout rate, saying the free ride on TARTA and yellow school buses was the only thing keeping some students going to school in the morning.

Girls cross country also has been axed, along with other high school sports deemed to have low participation.

Some parents complained at a school board meeting last week: The girls buy their own shoes, then they run, which is free. What's the big deal, two parents asked.

School district budget pressures that have been building for years, even decades, are showing up as real losses for students and parents next school year.

That's when $39 million in cuts and layoffs take effect, with more cuts likely the year after that.

A day of stark fiscal reckoning is upon TPS: There are too few students, too many school buildings, and not enough money to make it all work.

Fewer students mean fewer state tax dollars, budget deficits, and program cuts.

The city's property tax base has stagnated, and the school district has little more than half the student population it once had in the 1970s.

As a result, an old cry for businesslike efficiency in government has gone out as TPS looks to hire a new superintendent this summer and sell a school levy for the November ballot.

Along that vein, school board President Bob Vasquez announced a plan last week to establish a panel, seeded with experts from the corporate world, higher education, and broader Toledo community, to examine all aspects of school system operations.

Other blue-ribbon commissions have been convened in other districts with varying degrees of success, experts say. What's usually lacking is local political will to make the wholesale changes, experts say.

Mr. Vasquez presented his idea to a group of economic development leaders at a private Tuesday lunch at the Toledo Club.

School board Vice President Lisa Sobecki wants a panel, and Jack Ford, another board member, said Thursday that he supports the idea. That equals at least a three-vote majority on the five-member Toledo Board of Education.

"We try to do that now. We try to run the city like a business, too, but some things do cost," said Mr. Ford, who was Toledo mayor from 2002 to 2006. "I think a fresh look will help educate the community on how tough it is to fund K-12 education. We'll have to consider everything."

It could mean looking at how food, pencils, and other supplies are bought, which schools should be closed, and how children should be educated. Uncomfortable recommendations might include closing newer schools and saving older ones, expanding some programs and getting rid of others. It could include top-to-bottom reorganizations of command structures, Mr. Vasquez said.

The idea is to run TPS more like a business with a bottom line and customers who must be satisfied.

Parental satisfaction comes from greater educational choices, TPS officials and education experts say.

More options, such as expanding successful single-gender academies or early college high school programs, would improve student performance and keep students from leaving for charter schools, TPS officials say.

Most agree that the novel extended-day program at Grove Patterson Elementary School was a success, raising student performance.

But it costs more to run because teachers there work longer hours. The special program was eliminated this year to save money, removing a popular choice for parents and pushing some to consider leaving the district.

Calls for businesslike efficiency in government have been common. But critics point out a basic contradiction: School districts have mandates to serve the public and can't be shut down like inefficient factories.

But even those running the schools say their bureaucracies have to focus more on customer service and providing more education choices - like more car models on a lot so the customer doesn't shop down the road.

"We have to run it better than a business because we're public educators. We can't go out of business," TPS Treasurer Dan Romano said.

Parochial and other private schools have been successfully running education enterprises for years.

Unlike charter and traditional public schools, private schools do not rely on tax dollars and must charge tuition. Their customers, the parents, have to be satisfied to the point that they're willing to pay twice - taxes and tuition, said Joe McTighe, executive director of the Council for American Private Education, which represents 80 percent of all private schools in the country.

"It's like Honda competing with General Motors when GM is giving cars away for free," he said.

He said some parents are looking for religious atmospheres for the children that public schools can't deliver. But others are simply looking for safer or more orderly environments, he said.

He said some parents choose to move to the suburbs and try to find what they're looking for in those public schools.

"You can provide more parents with options if you're running a school system with choice. We talk about public, private, city, rural, but you really have to look at it school by school," he said. "I personally would like to see choice opened up across the board. It's about customer service. We understand that from the get-go. If we don't deliver, they choose another product. That's an accountability that's immediate, direct, and unforgiving."

TPS wants to retain students and even attract new ones as it balances its books into the future. It wants to persuade the public to pass a levy in November. The public voted one down on May 4, prompting the deep cuts to services that did away with high school bus service and other programs.

For every student who leaves for a charter school or uses a state education voucher, TPS loses about $5,800. That can amount to millions of dollars a year leaving the district, according to Mr. Romano.

Driving the push for reform is a $39 million deficit next school year. The district is still negotiating with unions for concessions to help find the last $4 million of that deficit.

Once that's cleared, school officials have to get to work finding savings and cuts to close a projected $44 million hole for the school year after that.

That's because federal stimulus dollars are drying up. The state has warned local school districts that it likely can't afford to replace the lost dollars and will have cuts of its own to local school funding.

For TPS, that could equal an annual loss estimated in a range from $24 million to $38 million starting in the 2011-2012 school year.

"This is another area that's upon us, and we need to put up a thought-out plan for how to address that," Mr. Romano said. "I'm trying to get the district out of just looking one year at a time. What we need to do is look at what's coming at us."

Bill Wendling, executive director of the Ohio 8 Coalition, which includes TPS, said he doubts the federal government is going to leave school districts without enough money to survive.

"It would be hard to believe that the President would let the country fall off the edge of a cliff. That doesn't seem like how the world works."

Whoever is to blame, it's clear that students have been leaving Ohio's urban school districts in droves.

In just the first decade this century, the state's eight urban school districts have lost about 70,000 students - falling to 210,000 students from about 280,000, Mr. Wendling said.

Those students represent lost tax dollars, but not necessarily operational savings for districts.

If three students leave a classroom of 25, that's a loss of about $17,400 in state tax money. But a full-time teacher is still needed for the remaining students, and the classroom still has to be lit and the building heated in the winter, he said.

"About 25 percent of the potential student population is being siphoned off, and when kids leave, they leave from a variety of classrooms, they move out of all grade levels, and it's difficult to adapt on the fly," Mr. Wendling said.

"If you look at Toledo in the 1950s, there was a huge enrollment decline. The more recent issue of declining enrollment is driven by charter schools and vouchers," he said. "We're spending $700-$800 million a year in the state on charter schools just from the urban schools."

Mr. Wendling said chasing businesslike efficiencies for urban school districts is always a good idea. But it's also like chasing a phantom because the districts are already run efficiently, he said. TPS officials can't control massive population shifts or the vagaries of economic development, he said. The drop in enrollment has tracked with the population drop for Toledo over time, he pointed out.

"We're stuck sometimes with older buildings in old neighborhoods. It was a selling point to have the elementary school next door," he said. "Now you're kind of stuck with old plants designed for an old production model. You can't do six-day shutdowns, like in factory situations. You can't ramp down the production lines because half of your students leave."

Contact Christopher D.

Kirkpatrick at:

ckirkpatrick@theblade.com

or 419-724-6134.



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