Dancing around the problem

The taxpayers of Ohio, from one end of the state to the other, are waiting for the ax to fall on the "creative' solution
Sandusky Register Staff
May 24, 2010

The taxpayers of Ohio, from one end of the state to the other, are waiting for the ax to fall on the “creative” solutions politicians will invent to fix school funding.

The news media has been thumping the table, pressuring Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland and members of the Republican-controlled Ohio Senate and House of Representatives to expose their hands to tell all their readers and viewers what steps will be taken to cure the ailing school funding system.

The governor contends this will be the signature issue of his term, and that while Republicans have had 10 years to solve the problem created when the Ohio Supreme Court declared school funding unconstitutional, the issue has festered and continues to lie in limbo. State legislators have countered by reserving the numbers House Bill 1 and Senate Bill 1 for the governor’s legislation plan to fix finances for the state’s school districts.

It seems pretty ridiculous — all this political posturing.

It also seems as though something is missing from all of this bantering. The residents of the state are being told there are major school funding problems. But none of the politicians tell the residents what really caused the problems. And yet until the causes of the school funding crisis are identified, how can there be solutions?

The blame for the crisis is placed on two actions. First on the list is House Bill 920, which limits the dollar amount a school district can collect in property tax money despite property re-evaluation and new development. The second on the list is the Ohio Supreme Court declaration that school funding is unconstitutional.

To cure either of these two problems requires more money, some say. And, toward that end, a bill was passed that allows boards of education to place “growth” levies on the ballot to counter in part the effects of HB 920. More recently, the State Board of Education has jumped into the fray seeking a constitutional amendment that will allow the state school board to declare what is required in terms of dollars to educate kids.

Both proposals sound like efforts to force taxpayers to throw good money after bad, and still don’t identify what caused the funding system to go sour.

Residents of the state have yet to hear how the politicians are going to fix the system, not just the funding. There’s good reason for that. It’s called political suicide. And while local school district officials are willing, on a one-on-one basis, to discuss the problems they face, in the hallowed halls of the capitol building those issues have yet to be addressed publicly.

What politician in his right mind would say mainstreaming special needs children, or funding for charter schools and home schooled children or even collective bargaining agreements are some of the reasons the current system has failed the residents of the state?     

Discussing these issues are sure-fire ways to get kicked out of office.

Let’s not go ballistic here. Instead let’s all be realistic.

There is nothing wrong with mainstreaming special-needs children. But, where once there were special schools for these children, and the schools were funded by MRDD levies, the levy money is now used instead for children under age five and those 18 and older. Some of the MRDD levy money should go to the local school districts.

It costs between $5,000 and $7,000 per year to educate the average child in Ohio. The average cost to education a special needs child is $20,000-25,000 per year with reports of it costing more than $125,000 to educate one special-needs child.

There is no financial mechanism in place to help these children, except district funds and some state and federal funding. Additionally, funding for charter schools and home schooled children has hurt the bottom line for school funding on a local and state level.

While these issues affect the bottom line for local school districts, perhaps the greatest issue is the cost of salaries and benefits for all school personnel. It is a harsh reality.

Annual salary increases as well as merit increases, health care packages and the 14 percent school district contribution to pension plans have wrecked the most havoc with district budgets.

Would it be too much to expect the governor and the legislators to step into this fray? There are options. Reduce the amount of money the local districts pump into pension plans; eliminate longevity pay; establish uniform salaries with a variation based on the cost of living in a particular district; establish uniform health care packages with a mandated employee contribution percentage; eliminate sick pay payouts upon retirement, and establish mandatory retirement after 25 or 30 years of service. It might help curtail the bleeding.

These suggestions are probably pretty radical. They might even be as unconstitutional as school funding.

So maybe, the only real solution is to eliminate public funding for universities and colleges that offer degrees in political science.

It would be a way to kill two birds with one stone — the money saved could be diverted to local school districts, and we might find fewer politicians running state government.