Labor makes school board gains, but big city districts face money problems

Labor-backed candidates made gains in several school board races last week, notably in Cincinnati, Dayton, and Columbus. Voters also rejected a $327 million property tax levy in Cincinnati, giving the new board there something to think about. This defeat, and the recent levy defeat in Dayton, should give pause to other big districts seeking new spending for their schools. Taxpayers are feeling stressed and they don't believe more money will fix what ails Ohio's urban public schools. Not surprisingly, Fordham's 2007 survey of Ohioan's attitudes toward public education and new spending showed the public's conviction that extra money won't make a difference-fully 71 percent of Ohioans think if districts were to spend more money it "would actually get lost along the way" (see here). The taxpayers are skeptical and they are most skeptical in the big urban districts.

These levy defeats and the election of union-backed school boards in the big cities will also surely result in more pressure on Governor Ted Strickland to "solve" school-funding problems. This is proving a tough sell, and no doubt the fact that the state's poorest districts already get upwards of 80 percent of their student funding from the state and feds makes it harder still.

In discussing his district's levy defeat, Michael Tefs, superintendent of the North Ridgeville district in Summit County, commented to a Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter that voters are frustrated with funding of schools through property taxes (see here). Tefs said the district will now try to figure out what voters will support.

The governor would like to know that, too. Strickland has yet to back up a campaign promise to do something about school funding, although he has succeeded in backtracking on his pledge (see here). Ohio is a high-tax state compared to many of its neighbors, the exceptions being Michigan and West Virginia. Education spending in Ohio has outpaced inflation and increased steadily from about $6,000 per pupil in 1996 to more than $9,300 in 2005, according to the Ohio Department of Education, yet districts keep calling for more money.

The fact of the matter is, however, that the only way to get more money into urban districts is through a Robin Hood strategy of taking more from the wealthier suburban districts. No politician wants to do this in 2008 before a critical election that could see the Ohio House go Democratic. Hence, the Governor's strategy is to bide his time here, and why not? Fully 60 percent of Ohioan's approve of his job as Governor (see here). Why fight this fight now?

Meanwhile, Cincinnati residents Carolyn and Marty Collins told the Cincinnati Enquirer the schools have had enough. "They have had too much money, and they squandered it," Mr. Collins said. "They've had way too much money. I'm done." It was the first time the couple had ever voted against a school levy.

Cincinnati's Superintendent Rosa Blackwell said massive job cuts and deep cuts to sports and transportation could be on the table. These threats often scare voters back into line. We'll see.

Cincinnati voters also threw out an incumbent school board member, breaking up a voting block that has effectively controlled the board since 2006 (see here). In this case, a slate of three union-backed candidates gained seats while one member of a voting block that has controlled the board since 2006 was defeated. All three winners were endorsed by the Democratic Party. Union-backed candidates also won seats in Dayton, prompting the Dayton Daily News to opine that they face difficult choices and now must govern (see here).

In Columbus, voters defeated Jeff Cabot, the Columbus school board's longest-sitting member, replacing him with Gary L. Baker II (see here). Voters returned four Democrat-backed members to the board. Baker also was endorsed by the Democratic Party.

In one notable defeat for labor, voters returned Stephanie Groce to the Columbus board. Groce fell out of favor with local Democratic leaders and lost the party's endorsement for supporting a KIPP charter school opening in Columbus and bidding out some supplemental services to private providers to cut district costs.

"I think people look at me and they see a person who is not afraid to ask tough questions," she told The Columbus Dispatch.

The toughest question of all facing school districts, and the big urban districts feel this heat most, is how they can secure constantly improving performance across their education systems without raising taxes. Too few district leaders and district board members are asking this question. The question is being posed, however, by taxpayers. New board members in Dayton, Cincinnati, and Columbus that are hoping for more state money are apt to be sorely disappointed.

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