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Every time a local school issue appears on on the ballot, an army of district parents try to convince the general public that our children are “worth it,” that they “deserve” a publicly funded education. We share all their praise-worthy achievements and announce to everyone who will listen that our local kids placed third out of 37 teams at last weekend’s Robotics competition or that our middle schoolers hold a regional record for victories at the Power of the Pen, or that the Barbershoppers ranked first in the world last year at an a cappella competition. I write blog posts about how “nice” my boys’ peers are and drone on about how much science and math content they’ve learned.
But you know what? This isn’t necessary. Or it shouldn’t be. Of course our kids deserve a publicly funded education. All kids do. Free, appropriate public education is a cornerstone of our modern democracy and we cannot raise productive, engaged citizens without it. We cannot come close to claiming to be a land of opportunity if there is no opportunity.
Here’s the deal: Our local school district is asking for voter approval of a 5.9-mill operating levy in less than a week and I happen to be one of the chairs of that campaign. And I’m sick of trying to convince people that our community’s children, even those who are poor, even those who are black, even those who might seem disengaged or irresponsible, are worth their support and their tax dollars. In my opinion, that support should be automatic.
Let me explain a little about the wonder of House Bill 920. I know, a blog that covers childhood cancer and now the nuances of school funding in Ohio . . . what a way to build a following! But bear with me a bit because it’s actually fascinating, in a hard-to-believe-that-could-possibly-be-true kind of way.
In 1976, at the height of rising inflation, the Ohio General Assembly passed HB920, which froze all tax revenue going to schools (and public libraries, but not city or county governments) at their 1976 levels. Not at a percentage or a rate, but at the actual dollar amount. The only way to increase that incrementally is with voter approval of new operating levies. I don’t think anyone can reasonably expect any district anywhere to provide an education in 2015 with the same amount of money they had in 1976.
But even when levies are passed, the need for additional levies never goes away. The state has cut $2 million in funding to our district in the past few years, not to mention what we lose due to foreclosures or reduced collections on property taxes, or the nearly $1 million going from our district’s budget to charter schools this year (including those that are completely disreputable and only out to make a profit) and more money still to fund vouchers. What all this means is that the district has LESS money with which to operate than it did when our community passed the last operating levy in 2011.
The money this levy would generate wouldn’t lead to raises (aside from agreed-upon step increases for teachers) or anything new; it would simply allow us to maintain. Because districts are legally required to balance their budgets, ours would have to cut $6 million if the levy doesn’t pass. That would undoubtedly impact every aspect of the district, from classroom teachers and programming to administration. That’s not an empty threat as a campaign tactic; it’s our duty and responsibility to tell people honestly what will happen if this fails. Another sad truth is that if this fails, the need for money will not go away and the district will have to come back again and ask for approval of a new levy. Again, not a threat, but a fact.
There has been much talk lately about administrative costs and I truly hope people will read this section carefully because it’s important that we all understand what we’re talking about when we say those words. The Ohio Department of Education requires districts to categorize all certified staff who don’t provide direct classroom instruction to students as “administrators.” This means that the salaries of our social workers, counselors and psychologists all fall under “administrative costs.” Do we spend more than most in this area? Yes, because we are doing an excellent job meeting the varied and complex needs of our largely impoverished student body. In addition to the “typical” social and emotional issues social workers help students with, ours also ensure that our district’s homeless students have daily transportation from their temporary shelters to their home school buildings. Or that the child who can’t see the board but can’t afford glasses gets in touch with the right agency who can provide them. Or that our young mothers access the services they need to stay in school and graduate.
The counselor in my sons’ elementary school hosts a lunchtime book group for students struggling with social issues. She organizes the Girls on the Run program for our 3rd through 5th grade girls who need both extra physical activity and a way to build self-confidence. She manages the Peer Mediators who help find peaceful resolutions to conflicts during recess. She attends every single IEP meeting for the many students in our building with special physical, emotional or learning needs and is constantly working directly with students, either individually or in small groups, all day every day and often well into the evening. Our social workers and counselors work tirelessly to ensure that all students and their families have access to shelter, food, electricity, running water, medical care and clothing so they can come to school ready to learn. This is not what you may envision when you hear the word “administrator.” They’re not sitting in some fancy corner office with their feet up on a desk (not that our actual administrators are doing that either, of course!).
Another piece of the administrative costs puzzle requires just a quick explanation: For the last year for which the ODE published data, our district’s teachers asked that their salaries be spread out over twelve months instead of the usual ten, but those final two months happened to be in the next fiscal year. This was a one-time recording issue, but it makes it look like the district spent one-sixth less on instruction than it actually did.
The other complaint that we frequently hear is that our taxes are too high (even when they’re offset by affordable housing). It helps to understand some of the historic reasons behind our local tax structure. The very things that make our community special also mean that we pay more in property taxes. Years ago, residents fought against the construction of freeway exits both where the Shaker Lakes Nature Center now sits and where the Cedar Lee Theater is. I’m glad to not live near a freeway (except when I need to get to one, of course!) or the industrial parks and chain restaurants that inevitably pop up around them. I’m glad to live in a neighborhood that values its small, independently owned businesses and green spaces. But, without a large commercial or industrial tax base, a heavier burden is placed on the shoulders of individual homeowners. This is unfortunate, but it’s also reality. We must keep our community strong and we can’t do that without strong schools. And strong schools require basic operating funds.
Please join me on Tuesday, May 5th in voting FOR our children, our schools and our community.
I’m back and mostly recovered from my recent non-stop campaigning for our local school levy. I was eating, breathing, sleeping CHUH for a few days there, hence my uncharacteristic absence from the blogosphere. But we had a resounding victory here, with the community stepping up and supporting public education despite tough economic times. The margin of victory was larger than any I remember, a whopping 14 percentage points. Dare I say the tide is turning for the Heights Schools?
Last night, we hosted an Open House for prospective kindergarten families at Fairfax, of which we are one. I watched Austin stand up there next to his future classmates, awaiting a turn at the SmartBoard, and I was struck by what a big and capable kid he has become. I’m pretty sure he would have been fine in kindergarten this year, but I have no doubt that we did the right thing giving him one more year of preschool.
I had his first parent-teacher conference of the year this morning and she said he is doing fabulously. Both academically and socially, he is absolutely on target — better than on target: he is thriving. And it is really a joy to see.
He plays nicely with everyone, boy or girl. He is always engaged in classroom activities (as evidenced by that little tongue sticking out), and especially likes the weekly “challenge.” He is getting mighty close to reading and has a mathematical mind that blows me away (much like his brother and unlike his mother).
His teacher has created a magical environment where the children believe they are just playing and yet learning is infused into everything they do. Each activity and project is carefully selected to enhance some specific skill, either academic, social or physical. I wish every child could experience this kind of classroom before moving into the big (structured) world of kindergarten.
For Austin, I know that this was a decision we will not regret.