School district has a spending--not funding--problem

The CH-UH school board fails to provide a fair communitywide explanation for a tax increase and needs to show more concern for the broader interests and health of the 60,000-person community beyond the roughly 5,400 student families, and including the children who are not attending district-run schools. Data [from] the CH-UH district’s financial report or the Ohio Department of Education Department (ODE) provides a fuller picture.

In 2015, the unemployment rate in the district was 6.7 percent, which is higher than national and state levels. In Cleveland Heights, the median family income has dropped to $49,056, far less than half the compensation of the average school administrator. The figure was $58,028 in 2006. The district is getting poorer, and smaller. Population in Cleveland Heights has decreased, from 50,769 in 2006 to 46,121 in 2015. For a home valued at $100,000, the 2015 property taxes were $3,920, compared to $3,203 for Lakewood, [another] inner-ring suburb. There is no doubt that high taxes are a deterrent to families seeking homes in the district, which puts an even greater burden on the remaining residents.

Our poorer and more unemployed population has been extremely generous to the district schools! The school board cannot ask for more without a deeper examination of its product, service delivery, marketing and operating model (to use enterprise terms). CH-UH ranks #1 in expenditure per student among 50 similar-size public school districts (ODE 2015 Report Card), and 15 percent higher than #2, Shaker Heights, which [has] a far wealthier population. In 2006, the annual budget (CAFR) was $83,685,378. This increased 32 percent to $110,738,646 in 2015. So, the budget increased two times faster than inflation over that period. It is even more astonishing that these huge increases occurred as enrollment decreased from 6,235 to 5,393.

Yes, I agree that legislators in Columbus need to address the unconstitutional funding arrangements throughout the state. Nevertheless, according to OED figures, last fiscal year (FY 2015) the State of Ohio spent more on primary and secondary education than at any point in state history. FY 2015 State General Revenue Fund and Lottery Profit spending for primary and secondary education exceeded FY 2010 funding by nearly $1.3 billion, or 17.8 percent.

CH-UH has an extra high proportion of students classified as “economically disadvantaged” and we must recognize the extra resources and efforts needed to help these students. The state allocation formula factors those needs into consideration. One can argue it is not a perfectly fair allocation, but that discussion obfuscates the larger point: the district does not have a funding problem, it has a spending problem.

It is becoming both nasty and unfair to bemoan the modest vouchers paid on behalf of students who choose not to go to a [public] school. The charter and school-choice movement is the civil rights movement of this generation, and is leveling the playing field with affluent families that can afford private and suburban school options. Graduation rates at CH-UH dropped from 96.4 percent in 2006 to 81.3 percent in 2015. I am sure those voucher parents, mostly from low- and middle-income families, are making what they believe is the best choice for their child[ren]. Consider that the district needs $20,000 per student, while the EdChoice voucher is between $4,650 and $6,000. (And, note to voters: the average cost per pupil at Hebrew Academy or Gesu is 50 percent lower.) We are fortunate and should be grateful to retain these families in our neighborhoods, and that they have not moved with all their tax dollars to another locale. 

The school board needs to examine the totality of its enterprise and devise a better model. I, for one, might support a levy that was tied to major changes and a plan for better educational and sensible economic outcomes for all residents of the district, regardless of their choice of school.

Robert Shwab

Robert Shwab is a Cleveland Heights resident.

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Volume 9, Issue 10, Posted 11:57 AM, 09.30.2016