Levies are necessary until Ohio reforms school funding

michs school

This is an article I wrote in January of 2012. It was published as a letter to the editor by the nice people of “The Neighborhood News” in Garfield Heights, Ohio. The content remains relevant because it concerns K-12 public school funding in Ohio and some of the challenges that school districts face when school levies are on the ballot.

Education is not free, not even a public education. We all know that private schools need to raise tuition annually to offset increases to operating expenses. So does a public school district, every few years, in the form of levies.

I never gave the funding of education much thought when I was a kid. My parents sent us to Catholic school. I know they struggled to pay the tuition, but I always felt like I was guaranteed an education. After all, education in America is compulsory. And if the adults who were put on this earth to take care of us continued to work hard, our basic needs like food, housing and an education would be met.

My parents made sacrifices and sent us to a building where nuns whipped us into shape and everything fell into place. I watched the news on TV and saw teachers from other schools on strike. I waited for the nuns at St. Therese to go on strike so I could stay home from school but that never happened. Lucky public school kids! I heard about the occasional school levy, but these things did not apply to us because parents footed the bill at our school, not the general public.

I grew up, went to college, and got married to a woman who also went to Catholic school when she was a kid. Before we knew it we had kids of our own. We agreed that public school would be the best choice for our wallet. We were already paying property taxes and also felt that public schools offered more transparency because of the No Child Left Behind Act. Like investors keeping their eyes on their portfolios, we contributed to our neighborhood’s tax base and sat back and watched how our schools were performing. When levies came around we voted yes, because the act of voting yes was an investment in our children’s futures. When the levies failed one after another, and services were cut one after another, I was moved to study this problem, to see if there were any solutions on the horizon. Enter the good, the bad and the ugly world of school levies.

In recent months our school district has been brought to its knees with the announcement of shortened school days and the cancellation of music, art, library, physical education, and lunches at most of the buildings. Every parent and every student in our school district are affected by these cuts. I myself experienced a whirlwind of emotions – from anger at the way public schools are funded, to disappointment in our school board and administrators, to anxiety about how I can continue to send my children to schools facing additional cuts and shrinking curriculums.

I am searching for a way to put the important things into perspective so I can look forward to a brighter future. Our girls love their teachers and their friends. And my wife and I witness firsthand the unwavering commitment of our district’s talented educators. These teachers make me want to stay and fight. But will things ever improve?

It took me a while to calm down after the school board meeting which took place last December in the high school cafeteria. Understandably, emotions ran high that evening. Parents lined up to voice their concerns over the cuts and the future of our schools. I sat and listened. I was moved by many of the parents, but not all. I was not inspired by any of the administrators, although I went in there irritated so it’s unfair of me to blame them. I must let you know that I am not writing this at the school board’s request, or on behalf of any school administrator. Chances are they don’t know me. But I appreciate the road blocks they are up against when it comes to operating schools.

I am willing to bet I am not the only parent who stresses out every time impending cuts are advertised when school levies roll around. I always support the school levies, but I cringe at the realization that the fate of my children’s education relies on the support from the entire community and not just the dedicated parents. I feel that threats (although we can attest to the validity of them) do not sell and promote the schools positively. Threats do not offer any solutions or promises if levies are passed. Threats fuel a growing mistrust among our city’s financially strapped populace, even though the intent of threats is to rally voters. Perhaps it is time for the administration to play the role of a savvy marketer for our schools and reveal to voters what positive changes will be implemented if residents vote yes on school levies.

Can the passage of a school levy save/create jobs in Garfield Heights? Can a passed levy assure the buildings which educate a large number of people in Garfield Heights stay open for business? Can the passage of a levy usher in new text books and bring back laid off teachers, and restart the electives and courses which meet the needs of every student?

One does not need to dig deep to discover positive stories about Garfield Heights City Schools. There are academic scholarships earned by graduating seniors to 4-year colleges and universities every year. There is an organization called Students of Service at the high school where students volunteer their time for those in need. Not because they have to, but because they want to. Then of course there are groups like Music Express, Academic Challenge and Bulldog athletic teams which bring so much pride to the community. I would like to mention some of the great things taking place at our K-8 schools, but most of their activities have been eliminated, or they get glossed over by negative stories on the news. But I hear that most of the students are hard-working well-behaved kids. I just wonder how they are going to grow up trusting adults when big people keep taking things away from them.

The problem, I’m afraid, is much bigger than Garfield Heights City Schools. School districts across the state have the daunting task of providing compulsory education for students with diverse needs – and within mandated budgets which don’t account for inflation and the shortcomings of No Child Left Behind.

To be fair, at least 40 other states fund public schools by use of a Foundation Program, and many of these states face similar financial problems to Ohio’s when it comes to financing their schools. This information pertaining to public school funding is easily available on the Internet. A simple search using key words like, funding public schools in Ohio, brings up numerous facts and documents surrounding the educational and financial challenges every school district in Ohio faces. Also visit http://www.citizensforgarfieldheights.com. This site puts you in the driver’s seat and enables you to be involved not only as a parent in your school district but as a resident of your community. I believe this site was designed so we can make informed decisions that ultimately affect the financial strength of the very schools we ask to educate our children.

Let’s face it. Relying on school levies to fund public schools does seem futile. But because we reside in Ohio, the Garfield Heights School District has no choice but to put school levies on the ballot.

The state of Ohio allocates only so much money to education and tells districts, you can only raise additional monies through the passage of school levies or earned income taxes. Our superintendent and some members of the school board touched upon this at the December meeting.

You may be interested in knowing that the way Ohio funds its public schools was deemed unconstitutional by the Ohio Supreme Court in 1997. Nearly 15 years later the state continues to operate school funding in the same illegal way. School districts have their hands tied but are still required by law to provide educations and have to resort to necessary evils like school levies to operate.

Levies are received with mixed reviews of good, bad and ugly. Parents opt to fuel the engine that perpetuates unconstitutional school funding because their kids mean the world to them. So until a better system of funding public schools is implemented, they are willing to pay more in property taxes should a levy pass.

People who don’t have kids don’t feel the same sense of urgency to vote yes on school levies. And there are many who feel the school doesn’t deserve any more money and they remain steadfast in their belief. I agree with the residents who feel that we already pay a lot of money in property taxes to a city that offers very few amenities. But what choice do we have?

And we certainly can’t send a message to Ohio’s Department of Education that it’s system for providing a quality education for communities like Garfield Heights is not working if we don’t make a lot of noise out here. Wouldn’t it be great if Garfield Heights can begin to erase the failed levies and disappearing school days and replace them with stories about comeback schools where parents want to send their kids?

Going forward I pray the district wins a levy one of these days. And I hope this happens in March and not later. Voter apathy on our part has got to take an early retirement. People have a right to vote any way they want to, but not everyone exercises that right.

In last November’s election, less than 7,500 people voted on the school levy (out of 18,810 registered voters). 2,885 voted for the levy compared to 4,578 who voted against it. We can’t fight a fair and contested battle at the polls if voters aren’t out there voting.

When I think of our future as parents in this school district I am reminded of a 2001 movie called Hardball. Actor Keanu Reeves portrays a down on his luck gambler ordered by a judge to coach a little league baseball team in a tough Chicago neighborhood. During a pep talk he tells the youngsters, “One of the most important things in life is showing up. I’m blown away by your ability to show up.”

It is my hope that we show up for our kids at the polls on March 6th.

Illustration by Michelina Sajovie

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