BELLAIRE - Voters in Marshall, Wetzel and Tyler counties in West Virginia approved levies to support their respective school districts in December, but two local Ohio school districts need to head in a new direction as they have not had as much success appealing to residents at the polls.
In the Edison Local School District, for example, voters on Feb. 5 declined a 9.45-mill operating levy by a 481-vote margin, setting a plan in motion that will eliminate bus transportation for high school students and close Pleasant Hill Elementary School.
Bellaire Local School District - which has been in fiscal emergency with state oversight for many months - has seen multiple levies and taxes fail at the polls.
Bellaire High School is shown. District residents over the past few years have rejected numerous attempts to pass a school levy or income tax to fund the public schools.
Photo by J.W. Johnson Jr.
This lack of support for public school systems has a negative impact on local communities, as the fiscal health of a school district is a major factor for many people and businesses looking to relocate.
Why do Mountain State voters seem more eager than their Buckeye neighbors to pay a little extra to support their schools? The answer likely lies in the system used to fund schools in Ohio, which has been declared unconstitutional three times since 1997.
The Ohio Supreme Court, in DeRolph vs. State of Ohio, ruled that Ohio's reliance on local tax dollars does not provide for fair and equitable educational opportunities for all residents. That is because too much depends on where someone is born and raised.
School district that have high property values would see levies generate much more revenue than would districts in urban and rural areas where property assets have lower values.
Neither the General Assembly nor the state's administration have ever adequately addressed the problem.
"I'm not optimistic that we will ever deal with" school funding, said Ohio Rep. Jack Cera, D-Bellaire. "The state needs to take more of a role in funding education at the state level so there's more equity among schools and we're not relying on property tax. In our area, (property) values are not great. ... And school levies may be the only chance people have to vote against a tax."
Cera pointed out that Ohio Gov. John Kasich recently unveiled a two-year budget proposal that contains a funding plan the governor says is designed to equalize funding among Ohio's 612 public school districts. Cera noted, however, that many local school superintendents have expressed dismay that their district would see no funding increases under that plan.
State Sen. Lou Gentile, D-Steubenville, said of the 33 school districts in his nine-county Senate district, perhaps five would see modest increases under Kasich's plan. While this is good news for those schools, including the Steubenville and Toronto city school districts and Jefferson County Joint-Vocational School, Gentile is concerned about those whose state funding would remain flat while they are "still reeling from cuts" made over the past couple of years.
Gentile said school officials he has spoken with believe they were "misled" about Kasich's vision for school funding.
"A lot of rural superintendents were led to believe they would receive a funding increase," Gentile said. "The actual numbers are not consistent with what the sales pitch was."
Gentile said Kasich's proposal is "tilted to benefit wealthier districts," citing proposed funding increases in excess of 300 percent for some districts in wealthy areas around Columbus."
Gentile believes that since the state has achieved a balanced budget, officials' top priority should be a bipartisan effort to create a new, equitable school funding formula.
"We need to move away from our over-reliance on property taxes," he said.