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Published: Sunday, 10/17/2010

Yes (gulp) on TPS tax

TOLEDO Public Schools' 24,000 students will quickly pay the price if voters reject Issue 5, the district's property tax proposal on the Nov. 2 ballot. They will suffer, albeit more slowly, if voters approve the big tax increase and TPS wastes it by refusing to make needed, urgent reforms. The school system's recent track record offers little cause for optimism on that score.

As dismal as these alternatives are, The Blade urges TPS taxpayers to vote YES on Issue 5. The district's new superintendent, Jerome Pecko, deserves the opportunity to exercise his leadership and try to propel the district toward change in the absence of an immediate fiscal crisis. And TPS students deserve not to be punished further for the failings of their elders who run the system.

Some economic circumstances are beyond the district's control. The recession has slashed both state aid to public schools and local property values on which the TPS tax base depends. The district has not asked voters for new money in a decade.

But even if voters make the tough decision, in a tough economy, to support the millage, their job will not be done. They then must hold the school district closely and strictly to account for its investment.

Such public pressure is necessary, because if TPS is left to its own devices, nothing will change — not the weak and divided Board of Education, not the obstructionist school unions, not the stodgy district bureaucracy. You'd hope that the leaders of these institutions would not be so arrogant or foolish as to interpret approval of the tax increase as a vote of confidence in their performance.

TPS seeks a continuing — that is, permanent — levy of 7.8 mills, the largest amount of new money the district ever has sought (a current levy is set to expire). If it is approved, the owner of a $100,000 home would pay about $200 a year in school taxes.

The district would apply proceeds from the new millage to current operating expenses. School officials say the levy would cover about three-fourths of the projected $44 million shortfall in the TPS budget for the next school year.

To help balance this year's budget, TPS has deprived students of many sports and other activities, as well as transportation and safety services. It has increased class sizes. Without new tax revenue, district officials warn of further spending cuts that would harm students even more.

By contrast, they assert, approval of Issue 5 would promote job growth and protect home values in Toledo. Invoking the slogan “Reform, Rebuild, Revitalize,” they say the new tax money also would protect the district's strong academics from eroding. That's a curious argument, since the latest TPS report card from the state identifies more schools in “academic emergency” now than last year.

TPS could — and should — have taken two positive steps by now to show that its executives and employees understand the sacrifice it is asking voters to make, and to acknowledge the sacrifice that students and parents already have made. It could have demonstrated major progress on a process aimed at academic improvement and financial and operating reform. Its employees, union-represented or not, could have accepted meaningful pay and benefit concessions to help close the budget gap.

The district has done neither. School board president Bob Vasquez has enlisted such luminaries as Toledo Mayor Mike Bell and University of Toledo President Lloyd Jacobs in his campaign for “total transformational change” in the district. But while the effort shows promising signs, such as allowing UT financial executives to review TPS budget forecasting methods, they are only preliminary.

And the district's unions remain as intransigent as ever. While some school administrators and board members suggest an employee pay cut of 5 percent or more, teachers union leaders have balked at a 3-percent cut proposed for the next school year. Even as the district takes federal aid aimed at preserving the jobs of school employees, TPS is laying off teachers — and the union has been less interested in saving those jobs than in preserving the pay packages of those who remain.

The best voters can do now is to resolve to attach conditions to the new money. TPS must close failing and unneeded schools. It must negotiate labor contracts in a way that puts the interests of students, not employees, first. It needs to trim its bureaucracy.

TPS doesn't deserve yet another excuse to preserve the status quo while it blames its failures on others. That surely will happen if the millage loses. As expensive as the bet is, parents and taxpayers need to raise the stakes while they call the district's bluff.

So swallow hard, vote YES on Issue 5 — and resolve to watch TPS bureaucrats and unions like hawks, to ensure they don't grab the money before it can reach the classroom.



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