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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.

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I’ve been thanked a lot in the past 48 hours. By my kids’ teachers and the parents of their classmates, by friends, neighbors, fellow Heights grads who’ve since moved many states away, random people I had no idea were in favor of this issue. And while all that feels good, the thanks really go out to you. To every person who dropped lit, toured the high school, made a phone call, forwarded an email, donated money, displayed a yard sign, read our words, listened to our stories and came out to vote yes on Tuesday. I thank you.

This unprecedented victory (truly: I do not remember a time when a school issue has passed in this community with 59% of the vote) has taken the work of many dedicated individuals and groups, and the trust and faith of thousands, and it means so very much. I am proud, I am thrilled and I am exhausted. There’s a part of me that wishes we never had to run this sort of campaign again. That the state legislature would take up an issue they’ve ignored for far too long and finally, once and for all, fix the way we fund our schools. I wish we could take the energy, dollars and endless hours people put into these campaigns and instead direct it to the schools themselves: fund a field trip (or several) with those donations, turn the hours of lit dropping into hours reading with kindergartners, use our passion in productive ways right in our own buildings. But that’s not how this works, unfortunately, and in a find-the-silver-lining sort of way, we’re lucky for it.

We are lucky to spend two months every couple of years pounding the streets in support of our community’s children and they are lucky to see it. We are lucky to engage in meaningful conversations with so many people, friend and foe, and to make new connections and new friendships in the process.  We are lucky to read and hear the words of praise that so many of our peers have to offer our district’s students and teachers. While there is incredible contention around every school bond issue or levy, there are also many moments of unequivocal celebration of our schools. For me personally, it means so much to hear from my neighbors and friends with children in private and parochial schools, to have them ask for yard signs or hear them say that they always believe that public schools should be a strong option. It means so much to meet the parent leaders at other buildings and have us work together toward a common goal.  It means so much to see Facebook friends in Indiana and New Jersey changing their profile pictures and updating their statuses in favor of Tiger Nation. It means so much to connect with elected officials and candidates on a shared vision.

There are many lessons to be taken from this victory, not the least of which is that residents seem to want their leaders to work with their schools, not against them. I do not think it’s a coincidence that the top two vote-getters in the Cleveland Heights City Council race were the two who endorsed and campaigned for Issue 81. Nor do I think it’s a coincidence that the solitary candidate in University Heights supporting this issue garnered the most votes from that city. The time is now for the two cities to come together and make us all stronger by engaging with and supporting our public schools. The citizens want that. The citizens need that.

There is much work to be done (and I’ll be writing about some of that soon). We have many difficult decisions ahead of us as we guide our leaders and especially our students through the upcoming plans and transitions. But for now, for today, I feel only lucky.

And I thank you.

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