Protect our Heights schools: understanding school funding

School funding in the state of Ohio is an incredibly complex issue—one that confuses even the most well-informed people. This article aims to clarify some important points as the community decides whether to support our local public schools on May 5.

What is a school levy anyway? An operating levy, such as Issue 2, is a request for an increase in property taxes that would be used to pay for the general operations of a school district. These tax dollars pay teacher salaries and utility bills; purchase new and replacement supplies, including technology and textbooks; and allow us to meet the many and varied needs of our diverse population of students. This is how public school districts are funded in the state of Ohio, according to House Bill 920.

Why does our community rely so heavily on personal property taxes? Cleveland Heights and University Heights are special communities. We value our green space and our small, independently owned businesses. Our predecessors fought against highway exits that were to be built right in our neighborhoods—something many of us are thankful for. This means, however, that we don’t have the same amount of industry, with a large corporate tax base from which to draw, as some of our wealthier neighbors.

Why do we have to approve school levies every few years? Under House Bill 920, passed in 1976, property tax collections are frozen into place, regardless of shifts in appraisal values. This means that without new levies, today’s schools would receive the exact same dollar amount they received in 1976! If districts waited to add new levies only every eight or 10 years, they would be unable to accurately set their budgets, because expenditures can vary widely over such long periods of time. Plus, homeowners would then be asked for very large increases, which they may find harder to afford than the current small requests, such as this year’s 5.9 mill request—the smallest amount in more than a decade.

What’s the difference between an operating levy and a bond issue? A bond is a separate, specific request for funds that can be used only for construction or renovation of our buildings. The bond issue passed in 2013 cannot pay teachers or put gas in the buses. Operating levies are needed to keep the doors to schools open and the classrooms functioning at their highest potential.

How do we know the district is doing a good job managing its funds? There are multiple independent agencies that review how school districts manage their funds, including the state auditor’s office. That office consistently ranks Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District as an excellent steward of the public’s money. In 2014, Crain’s Cleveland named Scott Gainer, CH-UH’s chief financial officer, the number-one CFO of any school district, nonprofit or public agency in Northeast Ohio.

Why is it so expensive to educate students in CH-UH? Providing high quality education is an expensive process. Our district has numerous supports in place to meet the academic, social, emotional and physical needs of our students. Our population includes a significant number of students with special needs, whose class sizes are extremely small and who may require highly specialized equipment or highly trained teachers. While only 20 percent of our community’s residents live in poverty, 68 percent of our district’s students receive free and reduced-cost lunch. These students may come to school academically behind or may require additional social services that are expensive, but necessary.

Our district also offers innovative programming for all students, including access to foreign languages, instructional technology, extracurricular opportunities, and nationally recognized instrumental and vocal music programs. As a community, we value the whole child and want to continue to enrich all aspects of a student’s development.

What happens if the levy fails? The need for money will not go away. The district cut $3 million from its budget just last year and is committed to making an additional $500,000 [in cuts], even if the levy passes. That, coupled with $2 million less from the state, means that there are only so many things to cut without impacting classroom instruction. That is what will inevitably happen if this levy fails. This will hurt our students and impede progress being made under the strong new leadership of Superintendent Dixon.

Why should I vote FOR Issue 2? Public schools matter to all of us, whether we have children or not. Every resident is impacted by the collective worth of [the public] educational system. This community is special and this community is strong. Let’s keep it that way by protecting OUR Heights schools.

Krissy Dietrich Gallagher

Krissy Dietrich Gallagher is a Cleveland Heights resident and the parent of two sons who attend Fairfax Elementary School. As a graduate of the Heights schools and a former Coventry Elementary School teacher, she is proud to serve as one of three co-chairs for this spring’s levy. She is joined by community volunteers Patti Carlyle of University Heights, a Canterbury Elementary School parent, and Alvin Saafir of South Euclid, whose three grown daughters attended CH-UH schools.

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Volume 8, Issue 4, Posted 1:21 PM, 03.30.2015