Ohio reforms lag behind state's fiscal crisis

Ohio's policy makers are trying to set the conditions for schools and districts to make smart cuts, but the timing for this couldn't be worse. 2011 will be long remembered as the year school funding fell off the ???cliff.??? The Buckeye State has seen $5.5 billion in one-time federal stimulus dollars dry up, the state legislature is in the brutal process of cutting $8 billion from its biennial operating budget, and local school districts have been pummeled by decreasing home and business valuations since 2008. In cities like Cleveland and Dayton, all of this is made worse by unpaid property taxes of 20 percent or more.

Governor Kasich and the Ohio legislature ??? in just over 100 days ??? have been working furiously on a series of changes to law that seek to give school district officials more flexibility in how they manage their districts in time of fiscal scarcity. For example, Ohio lawmakers have passed legislation (SB 5) that would give district officials flexibility to RIF teachers based on performance rather than exclusively on seniority, legislation has been passed that reduces state mandates (HB 30), and the current budget would allow for more innovation and sharing of services across schools, school districts and other government entities (HB153).

This is all for the good, but most of these changes will have little or no impact on how decisions are made in the coming months by districts dealing with their FY2012 budgets. Even reform-minded superintendents wanting to make smart cuts are bound ??by current law and contract language. As such, districts across the state are cutting pretty much in a cookie-cutter fashion, as the reforms embedded in SB 5 and the governor's budget won't go into effect until this summer at the earliest (and SB 5 will likely be up for referendum in the fall, thus freezing its provisions until then). Newspaper stories from across the state tell the tale. Here are just a few snippets from recent stories:

???Elementary guidance positions and gifted-and-talented specialists would be eliminated, as well as reading and math ???intervention' teachers in the grade schools and the family consumer science program in the junior highs. Bus routes would be consolidated, especially for high school students and transportation for some sports could become one-way, with parents expected to pick up their children after games. Pay-to-play fees would rise, lunch prices would increase by 25 cents in all schools, class sizes would grow, and elective course options would be reduced.

?????Sylvania school district unveils plan to cut $6 million,??? Toledo Blade (January 11, 2011)

?????Eighteen teachers will lose their jobs, many students will lose their buses and the program for gifted children will be axed in the London school district. In addition, eight classrooms aides, a principal and a mechanic will lose their jobs, a half-time dean's position will be eliminated and the preschool program will be revamped to save money. Pay-to-participate fees will increase.???

?????????????????????? ???London schools list cuts,??? Columbus Dispatch (January 13, 2011)

???The Pickerington school board approved $13 million in budget cuts last night that will eliminate the jobs of about 100 teachers, classroom aides, school nurses, secretaries and administrators. The cuts also eliminate field trips and the DARE anti-drug program and limit some bus service. They'll also reduce art, music and physical education in the district's seven elementary schools.???

?????????????????????? ???Pickerington school board's cuts cost 100 jobs,??? Columbus Dispatch (January 25, 2011)

?????The new round of cuts will leave the school system with fewer teachers, larger classes, higher fees for athletics and other extracurricular programs, fewer learning specialists and fewer electives at the high schools, officials said.???

?????????????????????? ???12.2M in Lakota school cuts detailed,??? Cincinnati Enquirer (February 24, 2011)

The lag time between needed policy reforms and impending budget cuts will hurt school districts and the children they serve, and district leaders can do nothing about it. It is significant that Ohio's lawmakers are modernizing state laws to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of school districts, but the timing of this was all off by about two years.

??-Terry Ryan

More By Author