Thursday, March 10, 2005

Notes From My Knapsack 03-20-05
By Jeff Gill

Local school districts, and educators all over Ohio, are having to take a very serious look at their projections for funding and student counts for the next five years.
Almost without exception, school boards and superintendents have done this for decades just in the course of providing good leadership. What is a little bit different is that they now are required by the state to present these projections and proposed budgets for five years out, and that they are not, by state law, allowed to present an intentional deficit.
What is a whole lot different is that, for the most part, district treasurers are legally obligated to create these budgets for which they will be held accountable, while the lawmakers themselves are playing fruit-basket-upset with the sources of revenue.
From the futzing around with the millage rollback (perish the thought that education might benefit from increasing property values, which they likely contributed to!) on through the slow bleed of eliminating what’s known as “inventory taxes” to myriad other complex intricacies of the tax code that result in simple reductions to local school districts, education in Ohio is taking it on the chin. Big time.
So be aware, and be supportive of what school boards and the professional staffs of districts are going through, as the Statehouse hints and winks at what they may or may not do with funding formulas and tax reform, fiddling ‘til June while responsible officials close to where the hard work of citizenship happens are having to produce figures right now. They’re not supposed to guess, they can’t overspend, and they have no idea what they’ll be allowed to receive. Sound fair to you?
Oh, there in the third row: you want to know why they spend so much more, per capita, even adjusted for inflation? Thank you for raising your hand, and I’m delighted to answer that question. The reason is not a “problem,” but it is a new factor which we should celebrate and support, along with taking into account as we hold (as we should) our schools accountable.
Not so very long ago, within the personal experience of many of us who are old enough to read, most developmentally disabled, handicapped, and chronically ill students were told “Sorry.” If you couldn’t run up a flight of stairs, use a restroom on your own, or hang upside down on the monkey bars by your knees, you didn’t go to school.
That was it.
A few motivated districts and caring teachers might have gone out of their way to bring schooling to children in such situations, and institutionalized kids may or may not have gotten some kind of education wherever they were warehoused, but that wasn’t the school district’s expectation, by either the law or in the minds of local residents.
What has changed, and costs more, and what we should be very, very thankful for, is that the law now clearly says there aren’t any kids we can spare. No child is “someone else’s problem.” Every school district is required – and who wants to say this is a bad idea? – to educate every child in their care, no matter what the obstacles.
The law does not require football or baseball, or band, or busing for older youth. It does require that, if it takes an aide or special equipment or assisting devices to get a child on the road to the three R’s and beyond, that’s gotta be done. I like sports and music and science fairs, but that legal distinction makes sense to me, it really does.
Add to that the fact that graduation rates 50 years ago were close to 50% in most school districts (calculated as the number of ninth graders who got diplomas four years later), with the social assumption that the “other” 50% would be educated on the job, in the military, or along the railroad tracks catching a westbound freight, and that was just fine, you can see why education costs more, head-for-head, than it did.
I’m open to any good idea about the best mechanism for levying the taxes to support schools without harming business. Abso-bloomin-lutely. But let’s not blame kids in wheelchairs, or castigate treasurers and board members who are playing a perverse game of “Wheel” with your host Pat Housemember and the lovely Vanna Senatechamber changing the rules in mid-game.
Got an idea? E-mail me at and I’ll give you room in this column to propose your plan. Give me three weeks worth of material, OK? This random roulette with kids’ futures has to stop.

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