Schools in crisis
Akron Beacon Journal - May 8, 2012
Policy Matters Ohio released early this year findings from a survey of Ohio school finance officials showing “alarming levels of fiscal distress” in districts across the state. The Cleveland-based think tank found that roughly two-thirds of the respondents face budget shortfalls, and those projecting shortfalls above 5 percent had almost tripled since 2010. Hard-pressed rural, urban and suburban districts planned to manage the budget gaps by cutting staff, programs and extracurricular activities, freezing wages and reducing spending on benefits, supplies and equipment.
If the survey offers a broad sketch of the financing crisis in Ohio schools, the budget challenges in individual districts flesh out the details. The Cleveland school district, for instance, is struggling to close a $64 million hole.
The Akron Public Schools, to close a $24 million budget hole by the end of the school year, is cutting 202 jobs, including 139 teachers, canceling middle school sports, dropping band and orchestra in the fifth-grade and negotiating labor contracts to reduce health-care costs. The reductions will hold whether or not voters approve a levy for new money in November. And if the levy request is rejected, the school board will need to cut the budget an additional $24 million next year.
Budget difficulties are nothing new for school districts. Still, the deepening crisis across the state stems as much from the long-recognized flaws in the state funding system as from shifts in state funding priorities. As state revenues eroded during the past recession, then-Gov. Ted Strickland shorted a new funding model and cut back the school budget. To stop the bleeding in Ohio and across the country, the federal government poured billions of dollars in federal stimulus money into state school coffers. The Akron schools, for instance, received $43.5 million in federal stimulus funds altogether in fiscal years 2010 and 2011, nearly $22 million of it as part of state basic aid to keep teachers in the classroom. In effect, the state applied the federal funds to fill gaps in funding for schools.
Left unanswered was how the state would make up the difference when the one-time stimulus funds expired. Gov. John Kasich’s two-year budget essentially leaves districts to make up shortfalls by improving efficiencies. The state budget does not replace the stimulus funds, offering $1.8 billion less in education funds than the previous one. Also, while Kasich works on a new funding model, he has put in place a “bridge formula,” which for Akron has translated into lower state funding this year, the district’s $149 million in foundation aid roughly $4 million less than last year.
Kasich remains adamant in rejecting appeals to consider directing a portion of a growing surplus (now $350 million) to make up for the previous cuts in the education budget. Ohio cannot build a world-class school system this way.