Ohio school funding battle continues

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) – In Tuesday’s primary election, six of seven local school levies on the ballot passed.

But the one that failed, South Range, got the most attention.

First News anchor Dave Sess has been looking into the school funding issue and brings viewers a special report on what he discovered.

Everybody knows if a district passes a levy, property taxes go up and schools have more money for education, but how many people know how Ohio funds schools? New State Rep. Tim Ginter, R-Salem, asked the top ranking lawmaker in the Ohio House that question.

“And I said ‘can you explain the school budget formula to me?’ And he said no. That was early on in the game,” Ginter said.

That is evidence that the formula is hard to figure out, constantly changes with new governors, and nobody has a real plan. The state Supreme Court ruled in 1997 that school funding was not an equitable system for any school district because it relied too heavily on property taxes.

The newest school funding approach came from Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s administration, determining a wealth index for each area.

“They took the local property valuations and income abilities of all local communities and gave every community an index. The average index in Mahoning County is 52 percent. The governor believes 48 percent of your funding should be made up at the local level. We’re just going to give you 52 percent, you make up the other 48 percent,” Blaise Karlovic of the Mahoning County Educational Service Center said.

And the governor also wanted school districts who were losing funding to use their cash reserves. That situation applied to 18 school districts around the Valley.

Mathews and Lordstown were tops on the list, losing more than 2 percent of funding.

Thirteen districts had over $1 million in cash reserves when the school year started, including Poland, United Local and Canfield. They had the highest totals because they are collecting money from a levy and it carries over to use down the road.

But for those districts with little reserve, a funding drop brought additional worry.

“I don’t want to go down to Columbus and say my district is losing money. I don’t want to complain. I want to find out why they are losing money and what the trend is and give a reason why,” Leetonia Superintendent Robert Mehno said.

It was because the governor’s office believed some districts had a higher capacity to pay more of their expenses. All districts follow a recommendation to keep a two-to-three-month supply of cash in reserve in order to pay expenses.

Being forced to use it can deplete that fund pretty quickly and lead to cutting important programs. The districts were left scratching their heads about using the reserves and started sending complaints to the governor.

“The story that you have is wrong because you are telling us on paper that Jackson-Milton is the richest school district and 44 percent of the kids are on reduced or free lunch out there, so they are just looking at it on paper,” Mehno said.

While making more calls on this issue, Sess found that Mehno had looked at the data before because 10 levies failed in the district and every cut possible was made.

When Kasich’s budget came out this time, the numbers jumped off the page to him and showed him two trends: The funding increase per pupil for smaller schools, those with less than 2,000 students, was just $38.32, compared to $621 for the bigger schools with more than 6,000 students. And more smaller schools were losing money,¬†even though small schools, those with less than 2,000 students, make up 58 percent of all districts in Ohio.

“In the first year of the budget, 71 percent of rural schools, 230, would be losing money. Of all other categories, 30 percent would be losing money,” State Sen. Joe Schiavoni, D-Boardman, said.

Mehno sent letters to the administration. He even got help from State Rep. Tim Ginter to testify before a House education subcommittee, where he presented his data. They listened and made significant changes.

“This budget seems to be more evenly distributing the funds among the school districts than the prior budget. At this point, no school will lose funding under this budget, which is good news for all school districts,” Ginter said.

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