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Published: Tuesday, 12/15/2009

State budget cuts would devastate Toledo area schools, superintendents say

BY TOM HENRY
AND JIM PROVANCE
BLADE STAFF WRITERS
Szollosi Szollosi
NOT BLADE PHOTO Enlarge

Catastrophe. Devastation.

No matter how hard area school superintendents and legislators tried to explain yesterday how the state budget mess could affect their districts, the theme was one of impending doom.

It's hard to soft-pedal a likely $57 million cut from a $308 million budget over two years if you're Toledo Public Schools Superintendent John Foley.

Or $5.3 million from the $70 million Washington Local Schools budget if you're Superintendent Patrick Hickey.

Or $2.4 million of the $42 million Oregon Public Schools budget if you're Superintendent Michael E. Zalar.

"They're playing games with our children's future," said Ohio House Speaker Pro Tempore Matt Szollosi (D., Oregon).

He slammed Ohio Republicans over the state budget deficit during a news conference at Toledo Early College High School, on the University of Toledo's Scott Park campus.

The early college program allows high school students to earn college credits but is endangered if state cuts are enacted.

At stake is how the budget stalemate would affect schools if it is not resolved by Dec. 31, the state's constitutional deadline for its budget plan.

An $851 million funding gap was created this fall when the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that Gov. Ted Strickland's plan to partially fund schools with revenue from slot machines at racetracks must be approved by voters no sooner than November, 2010.

That exacerbated an already difficult funding situation for lawmakers trying to phase in the last round of 2005 income tax cuts.

To offset the high court's ruling and keep most of the school funding intact, Mr. Strickland has implored the Senate to approve House Bill 318, which would put the income tax cuts on hiatus for two years. The measure was adopted by the House in late October, but the Senate has not acted on it.

Mr. Szollosi said at yesterday's news conference that House Bill 318 was the best hope "to avoid catastrophe."

"This current situation will pull the rug out from under us," Mr. Hickey said. "We mustn't subject kids to political wrangling."

The districts would lose teachers, support staff, and programs while being forced to increase fees, superintendents said.

"It would require us to go to a very bare-bones program," TPS' Mr. Foley said.

Mr. Szollosi said the stalemate, if unresolved, could ultimately lead to higher property taxes so that districts could make up at least part of the cuts.

Mr. Strickland said yesterday that he talked with Senate President Bill Harris (R., Ashland) and remains hopeful that an agreement can be reached before Dec. 31.

Failing a budget deal before the end of the year, the Strickland administration has warned that cuts could begin next month.

That could mean an immediate cut of 10 percent and an additional 15 percent next year.

While much of the attention has been on schools, advocates for social services and libraries fear that lawmakers might amend the state budget to spread the cuts.

"Cuts to public libraries are one example of many that could come if bipartisan talks break down," said Clyde Scoles, director of the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library.

Sen. John Carey (R., Wellston), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said the committee received 7,000 e-mails from library users over the weekend.

"I can't say that anyone doesn't have something to worry about at this point," he said. "I'm telling [school superintendents] that I am willing to support [House Bill] 318 and the tax-cut delay. Mr. Harris has said that for us to have that opportunity, the governor needs to support construction reform. That would save the state approximately $300 million a year. That's $3 billion over 10 years, so that adds up to real money."

Mr. Strickland challenged lawmakers to send him a list of other budget cuts they would make instead of schools.

"If they feel as if there's $851 million in fat in the budget and are willing to say what they will vote to cut, they can do that," he said.

"I've not heard a single suggestion about what should be cut. In fact, when the Republican caucus came out with their initial budget fix, they were actually adding to the cost of state government, not reducing it."

Contact Tom Henry at:

thenry@theblade.com

or 419-724-6079.



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