A race to find survivors before more storms arrive

April 29, 2012


Associated Press

WEST CHESTER — One by one, the parents of Lakota Schools came down the auditorium steps to stand before the microphone. Some were dressed in business attire; shirt-and-tie, sport coats, dresses. Others were casual, in jeans and T-shirts.

All were unhappy about what is happening in one of Ohio’s highest-rated school districts, as it deals with tough budget pressures that schools across the state are grappling with.

“We are cutting every student’s ability to achieve his full potential,” said longtime resident John Trygier.

“I wanted them to have the Lakota education I had,” said Lisa Babcock, a mother of five. “Are you going to drive all the parents out of the school district?”

Sitting around a table at the front and facing an audience of hundreds on a Monday night in this northern Cincinnati suburb, school administrators and board members on the verbal firing line weren’t happy, either.

“We have no choice,” Karen Mantia, the superintendent, said repeatedly.

School officials had just laid out measures to slash $10.5 million, more than 6 percent, from the district’s budget. That’s 141 lost jobs, most of them teachers, one fewer class period a day, less instructional time and less art, music and physical education.

Such scenes are playing out around Ohio.

“It’s becoming more and more common across the state, and across all types of districts, even districts with generally high levels of performance,” said Damon Asbury, legislative director for the Ohio School Boards association.

A survey by the research group Policy Matters Ohio concluded that two of every three districts face shortfalls. From the biggest such as Cleveland and Cincinnati, to small ones such as Waterloo in in northeast Ohio and Monroe in southwest Ohio, school boards are hacking at their 2012-13 budgets, with hundreds of jobs already slated for elimination.

The state’s school funding formula, reliant on property taxes and willingness of voters to approve levies, was declared unconstitutionally inequitable in 1997 by the Ohio Supreme Court. New approaches offered since by governors and legislators have fallen by the wayside. Gov. John Kasich has indicated he will tackle the contentious issue in the next year

While among issues with the formula is the gap in property values between wealthy and poor districts, the recession hit some suburban districts particularly hard. After years of double-digit enrollment growth that required building new schools and hiring more teachers, they abruptly ran into what former Little Miami Schools board president Kym Dunbar calls “a perfect storm” — slashed state funding, falling property values, pinched household budgets. That southwest Ohio district fell into a state-declared fiscal emergency and is trying to climb out after finally passing a levy last November. Voters had voters rejected eight earlier measures.

Lakota Schools, a 68-square-mile district between Cincinnati and Middletown that includes House Speaker John Boehner’s home and AK Steel’s corporate headquarters, dates to 1957 and saw growth explode from fewer than 7,000 students three decades ago to some 18,000 today as the once-rural area along Interstate 75 took off.

“We saw valuations going up, up, up,” said treasurer Jenni Logan. “And the same thing happens in reverse.”

School revenues from real estate and business taxes fell more than $10 million while state funding dropped by $4 million. Cash reserves, federal stimulus money, pay freezes and cuts that took 82 positions last year bought some time, but voters have rejected three straight ballot issues. The latest in November would have added $145 a year in taxes for every $100,000 of home valuation.

David Humphrey, a longtime bus aide in the district, said it should have been more cautious with its spending years ago, in better times, “before reality set in.”

“Everyone is concerned about their own well-being now,” he said, saying his property’s value fell $11,000 in six months. “That kind of wakes you up.”

About a third of Ohio’s 613 public school districts had levies in November, and state school boards officials say in recent years, it takes districts, on average, three times to win passage.

Kasich has said voters should demand efficiency in schools. The Republican wants teacher pay focused more on achievement than seniority.

It’s up to school leaders to generate support by demonstrating they have their own house in order, said Gary Cates, who represented West Chester for more than a decade as a Republican state legislator.

“The school district has got to find a way to inspire confidence in the community if they want people to open their pocketbooks,” said Cates, now senior vice chancellor of the Ohio Board of Regents, which oversees higher education. Cates noted that nearby districts such as Fairfield and Lebanon passed levies last year. “It’s up to the school board to stop blaming everyone but themselves.”

Mantia, in her first year at Lakota after being superintendent of Pickerington Schools, a suburban Columbus district which also underwent sharp cuts before a levy passed last year, said she understands the state’s need to focus on attracting businesses and stimulating Ohio’s sluggish economy. But she sees education as an important force for economic vitality.

“There are some things that you can’t yield on, and educating our children is one of them,” she said.

It seems the district’s rapid growth has become a liability, said James Miller, father of twins at Lakota West High. His son plays football, his daughter’s a cheerleader, and they are also are involved in other activities — costing him $550 each, per sport.

“It’s almost like you pay all these fees, and then they’re always trying to get more money,” Miller said.

Jenny Van De Eynden, mother of a senior and eighth-grader active in band and music programs, doesn’t like fine arts cutbacks.

“The quality of education is being compromised,” she said. “It cuts into what makes Lakota Lakota.”

Ben Dibble, board president, assured parents the district continues to seek ways to reduce costs, such as saving thousands with improved energy efficiency and combining busing routes.

“We are trying to be economically responsible and only spending what we actually know is coming in revenue,” Dibble said.

Even with the unpopular cuts, Lakota’s budget forecasts show dark clouds ahead. Without a new levy, it will face a $14.1 million deficit within three years.