Wednesday, Apr 25, 2018
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Marilou Johanek

Defeat of school levies means more beg-a-thons to come

THE crowd in the school cafeteria was grim-faced. We had seen the charts and heard the spiel a hundred times before, only now the situation was worse. Our small rural school district had suffered a big setback with an overwhelming levy defeat in November and prospects for passage a second time around were bleak.

Compounding the pessimism was the fact that the school system was asking voters to approve two levy requests. But after the last drubbing in the polls, the district's shortfall was larger and both levies were crucial to keep the schools from falling deeper in the hole.

Like many school districts in Ohio forced to beg regularly for local money just to continue operating, ours has enacted a steady stream of cuts and reductions in personnel and programs over the years as it struggled to run a balanced budget with fewer resources. We've lost good teachers in math, gifted studies, language arts, and music, and watched services and support staff eliminated along with field trips and special events.

Faculty and staff are under increasing pressure to do more with less and somehow expected to meet high standards of classroom achievement. Despite the cutbacks, our district still boasts a sustained record of educational success, garnering four consecutive excellence awards for academic performance.

Yet like every other public school district in the state, we have reached a desperate financial stage where - just to maintain the current level of services - there is no choice but to get voter approval for higher taxes. But first, school administrators have to go through the old song and dance routine of selling a levy to a public fatigued with repeated school-funding appeals.

Nevertheless, school principals along with the treasurer and superintendent willingly turn themselves into shameless pitchmen before residents in the school cafeteria or other venues. With charts, pamphlets, and spiels, recycled from the last failed levy attempt, they explain why the district is in dire straits.

They brag about past achievements and honors and plead for the ability to keep going forward. There's something deeply sad about the whole scene.

As I watched the tired-sounding superintendent tell why the district absolutely needs both an emergency renewal levy and a 1 percent payroll income tax, it occurs to me that he and other school leaders probably never bargained for this when they chose education as a career.

No doubt they figured they'd be spending most of their time and energy on improving classroom learning, not on endless beg-a-thons to stay in business. Yet, because they know firsthand how inadequate funding can adversely affect all aspects of education, they're resigned to the reality of perpetual levy campaigns.

As a parent of public school students and a property owner, I sit, listen, and seethe at the predicament the state has put me in of either voting for higher taxes or watching my kids' education suffer because of even more teacher and program cuts. I'm in this corner because Statehouse leaders refuse to truly reform the state's unconstitutional school-funding formula.

To his credit, Governor Strickland wants to create a funding system that is adequate and fair. He understands that despite the dismal economic climate, state investment in education can't be postponed today or we'll forfeit tomorrow with poorly educated citizens.

On Tuesday, school levies dominated ballots statewide, a stark reminder to all Ohio politicians that true educational reform - not just a new school aid package - is urgently needed. Quality public education shouldn't be an iffy bet, depending on where you live or how amenable the community is to shared responsibility.

But it is and some people, noted one observer, simply take a perverse pride in voting down every school levy they can, regardless of the consequences. They either don't have children in the schools, or complain about being overtaxed, or blame the schools for paying teachers too much, or all of the above.

And they often decide whether schools will exist in their present form or not. This past week, they defeated one of the two levies in my district. That means my kids lost the gamble as more staff positions disappear along with programs, services, and transportation.

I'm guessing it also means another levy song and dance before November and another cafeteria meeting with a weary superintendent consigned to his role of selling education for money.

Marilou Johanek is a Blade commentary writer.

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