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Published: Tuesday, 2/23/2010

Make tough decisions now for better future, Ohio urged

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF

COLUMBUS - Lots of heads were nodding yesterday as a Washington-based think tank repeated what many had heard before: Ohio must make difficult decisions now to position itself for a new post-recession world economy.

But the message was worth repeating, said Lucas County Administrator Mike Beazley, who served on the steering committee for what became an in-depth study of more than a year into Ohio's economy and government and the effects one has on the other.

"It just makes it clear that Ohio has to change," he said. "We have got to find a way to make government more responsive so that we spend less time competing with each other and more time competing as a region, as a state, and internationally."

The report, issued by the Brookings Institution and the

Greater Ohio Policy Center, calls for the state to get a handle on the cost of operating government, specifically calling for the state to reduce the number of its 613 school districts by at least one-third.

It urges Ohio to continue on its path of positioning itself at the forefront of green technology, calls for voter renewal of the Third Frontier bond package that invests in high-tech ventures, and urges the state to take full advantage of federal funds.

U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown and Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher, both Democrats, said much of the report aligns with existing policy in Washington and Columbus.

"We are not the Rust Belt," Mr. Fisher said. "We are the brain belt, but we need to tell that to the world in more effective ways than we have before."

The call for consolidation of cooperation among local governments, particularly school districts, is likely to prove the most controversial.

"Ohioans must love local governments, because you've got tons of them," said Bruce Katz, vice president of Brookings' Metropolitan Policy Program. "I know some of our recommendations will offend many in the state: Cut the number of school districts by a third. Well, Maine is doing it. Indiana has proposed it. Pennsylvania has proposed it. It is time to prepare for a very different century."

Rick Lewis, executive director of the Ohio School Boards Association, noted the state has about half the number of districts it had in the mid-20th century.

"Part of what we're missing is the perspective of local communities when it comes to taxing and spending," he said. "How local governments feel about their size and makeup shouldn't be disregarded. We've moved up to number 5 [in Education Weekly's ranking of state education systems], and we're continuing to move up. Some of the smaller districts below 2,500 students are high-achieving districts," he said. "A lot of this seems to be predicated on saving money, but there has to be a lot more conversation as to whether we would truly see savings."

Mr. Brown generally embraced the report, although he noted not a lot was new to his ears. "I think to go up this steep hill, you need a lot more evidence and support of a broad section of the community, and I think we're getting it."

Jack Shaner of the Ohio Environmental Council praised the emphasis on green technology and energy and a renewed commitment to urban centers.

"We need to get back to what made Toledo and so many cities great - compact cores of commerce and industry with walkable neighborhoods.. There are things in here that specifically help Toledo, including the recommendation for a statewide policy on walkable waterfronts. … What has Toledo got going for it? It has the great Maumee River and waterfront, something many landlocked cities would die to have."

The full report is available at greaterohio.org or toledoblade.com.

Contact Jim Provance at:

jprovance@theblade.com

or 614-221-0496.



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