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Published: Thursday, 5/26/2005

Proposal freezes aid for a third of districts

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU

COLUMBUS - More than a third of Ohio's 612 school districts would see their state funding frozen over the next two years under a new budget counter-proposal, even as the Ohio Senate talks tough about chronically failing schools.

"We're subject to inflationary pressures like any business or industry. When there's no additional support from the state, it'll end up coming out of local tax dollars," said Bob Moellenberg, treasurer of Springfield Local School District.

Springfield is one of 215 districts that would be flat-lined both years under the $51.2 billion budget counter-proposal unveiled Tuesday by the Senate Finance Committee.

By comparison, 166 districts would have seen no increases under the plan passed by the House in April. Many districts would have seen funding cuts under the plan proposed by Gov. Bob Taft in February. No district would get less money than current levels under the Senate plan.

The Senate proposal would spend $6.2 billion in direct subsidies to schools in 2006 and $6.3 billion in 2007, an average increase of 2 percent each year. It would spend a base of $5,283 per pupil in the first year and $5,403 in the second.

While the budget again revises the formula for distributing the money, it still works within the same total dollar framework approved by the House last week.

"The whole problem with the state education budget is that it's still unconstitutional," said Sen. Teresa Fedor (D., Toledo), a former public school teacher. "We're working within a framework that's broken."

The Senate plan takes a step back from the House version and in Mr. Taft's direction by immediately implementing a new "building blocks" formula distributing the aid among districts.

"The goals are to demonstrate to the public and to schools what the state is paying for - a reasonable teacher-pupil ratio, a certain level of average teacher salary, intervention, poverty-based assistance, all-day kindergarten, professional development," said Sen. Randy Gardner (R., Bowling Green). "The bottom line is that the public wants to know what the state is responsible for and directs funds for," he said. "We're moving toward a system that demonstrates that level of commitment."

The plan drops consideration of higher costs of doing business in some districts, an adjustment that has benefited urban schools such as Toledo.

The House had postponed implementation of the building blocks concept until the second year of the biennium, and then it would have gradually phased it in.

According to numbers supplied by Senate Republicans, Toledo Public Schools would receive $211 million in basic state aid in 2006 and $216.5 million in 2007, increases of 4.7 and 2.4 percent respectively. At first glance, the numbers appear positive, according to Toledo Treasurer James Fortlage. But the district expects a drop in enrollment that would affect its state support.

"The obvious bottom line depends on enrollment," said Mr. Fortlage. "A lot depends on charter school enrollment, which is trending upward. How much of this will just flow through to charter schools?"

The budget would create an "academic distress commission" to make personnel, management, and budgetary decisions for any individual school building that has been in academic emergency and has failed to meet test goals as spelled out under the Leave No Child Behind Act. No schools yet meet this threshold because the act's goals have been in place just two years.

The budget also includes proposed sanctions for charter schools that fail to meet expectations in spring and fall testing. Charter schools are publicly funded schools freed from some of the regulation of traditional public schools.

If a charter school fails for one year, it must develop an improvement plan. After two years, its sponsor would lose $5,000, or half its sponsorship fee, whichever is higher, and the option of closing the school would be on the table. After three years of falling short of goals, the school would lose its charter.

Contact Jim Provance at

jprovance@theblade.com

or 614-221-0496.



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