Ohio’s weird and quirky system of school funding that makes Superintendents fundraising chairs.

I first became a superintendent in 2001 and immediately one of my first and foremost priorities was passing a tax levy.  Yes, my most important and immediate task in the school district was passing a levy because without additional funds —  you as superintendent would have to recommend to the Board of Education a whole series of cuts to programming and staff.

I quickly became an expert in campaigning.  I read precinct maps, look at voter turnout, held focus groups, did polls, went door to door, worked the polls…..hardly sounds like the job of a school superintendent does it?  I can assure you, I never had a class in preparation to be a superintendent entitled “How to pass a school levy.”  You learned as you went…baptism by fire so to speak and quickly I became and expert on campaigns.

I became such an expert,  I would dread the start of another levy push.  I would spend countless hours explaining to my levy committee — all of whom are moms and dads who just want to help – that talking to “No” voters is a waste of time or discussing solely what it cost a homeowner is not effective. .  But…I often appeased that hard-working group and let them tackle the “No” voters and put how much it would cost a taxpayer on brochures.  It is a cumbersome time consuming and often depressing process to beg for money. Asking local people to vote on raising their own taxes is a tall order even for those who support the school because it is money directly out of their pockets.

So how did this happen?

In Ohio, our smart General Assembly figured out long ago that raising taxes is not good for reelection.  So they pawned that job off on 620 individual school superintendents who bear the brunt of the anti-government, anti-tax sediment of the communities they serve.  Those individual superintendents are the ones who are face to face with the senior citizen on fixed incomes who simply cannot afford a tax increase and they must work with teachers, support professionals, and others that they will ultimately have to lay-off if the levy fails.   It is the Superintendent and often some brave school board members who answer the community forum questions, try to explain Ohio’s convoluted school funding model, and attempt to save important educational opportunities for the kids in which they serve.

This places terrible stress on local communities and at times pits otherwise good wholesome people against one another.  I understand and empathize with all the angst around school levies and wish the taxpayers of Ohio woke-up and understood that the WOLF in SHEEP’s clothing is the very LEGISLATORS who declared they never raised taxes when in fact they did…..

How?  Here are just some examples.

  • They forced those levies to go on the ballot by reducing dollars that go to each school district receives by using a confusing funding formula’s that on the surface looks like an overall increase in student funding when in fact it is a reduction. It is a skillful shell game — but in the end the districts in Ohio have seen a steady decline in State Funding despite the headlines.
  • They divert funds to charter schools and fund them with local tax dollars.  When a student leaves the local school district to attend a Charter school the State of Ohio DEDUCTS $6500 from the local district and send those dollars to Charter Schools. The Charter schools have proven time and time again they are not effective, often fraudulent and have no accountabilty to public dollars that fund them. What is even more egregious is often schools are funded on the basis of wealth.  The more wealth you have the less you get in State Funding and vice versa.  So many of our school districts are sending LOCAL tax dollars to charter schools. Genius of course on the part of the Ohio General Assembly since if it was actually up to a community to fund that charter school very few of them would exist.
  • We bus kids to parochial and charter schools.  Yes your local taxpayer purchased busses are often running all over the county and beyond dropping kids off to charter schools and private schools.  Who do you think is paying for the driver, the maintenance, the bus, the insurance — you the local taxpayer.
  • College tuition for students still in High School.  Yep, in our newest iteration of using taxpayer funds to pay for college credits students can attend a public or private university on the local school districts dime.  I am all for students attending college when they are ready, and all for the opportunity for kids to get a jump start on a four year degree.  But I wonder what my fixed income senior citizen thinks?  I wonder if when those voters went into the voting booth they realized they would supplement colleges with tax levy dollars?

This is by far not an exhaustive list but I think you get the idea.  All of these diversions force superintendents to become fundraising chairs that takes away from the primary focus —  education of kids.  I became a superintendent to work with teachers and kids to improve educational opportunities. It is disheartening to know that many — many — superintendents in Ohio are always doing one of three things — preparing for a levy — dealing with the aftermath of a failed levy — or trying to make cuts to avoid a levy.

Ohio needs to abandon this antiquated model as it only perpetuates inequities among communities. For those communities with more wealth are more likely to pass those levies and therefore all districts struggle to pass those levies.  This creates stark differences in educational opportunities depending on your zip code.  I would love to see a member of the  General Assembly answer the question posed by a senior citizen who on my very first levy campaign asked me with all sincerity  “I would love to vote for your levy to help the kids — but if it passes the tax increase will force me out of my house…what am I supposed to do?”

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About James Herrholtz

Consultant, Teacher, Coach, Administrator for over 23 years. I have been a superintendent of schools, College Instructor, and worked at the Ohio Department of Education heading up the Division of Learning.
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