GUEST COLUMN: Examining disparities of proposed school funding by governor

Governor Kasich recently released his biennium budget and once again rural districts will be seeing a significant decrease in funding, while urban districts will see an increase.

In fact, rural districts will lose an average of $91.81 per student while urban districts will gain $391.91 per student. This is almost a $500 difference per student based on where the child resides. This discrepancy is similar to the governor’s proposal two years ago. In the current proposed budget the data consistently shows that larger school districts are realizing increased funding at the cost of rural districts. This could be interpreted as a move by the governor to encourage consolidation of school districts. We are fortunate to have representatives like Representative Tim Ginter (Rep 5th district) who challenged the previous budget which resulted in a more equitable funding formula and increased funding for school districts.

Tim Keen, the Office of Budget Management director, has identified the reduction in enrollment as a reason for decreased funding. When questioned concerning specific reductions in rural funding, Keen offered this explanation: “Some of the very modest reductions that the executive budget proposes are likely offset (a), by the balances these school districts hold, or (b), by the increases in local property tax revenue, particularly in the agricultural districts, that they have gained.” Let’s analyze these assumptions.

First, Keen has emphasized that districts that have seen a decrease in enrollment should receive less funding. An analysis of the district-by-district projections indicates this is inconsistent when applied in the governor’s proposal.

The analysis shows that 55 percent of the urban school districts lost student population. Yet urban districts are seeing increased funding of close to $400 per pupil. Initially, it was believed to be a reduction from the guarantee, but it has been reduced from the total state subsidy. Furthermore, it disregards the efforts that districts have made to combat decreasing enrollment.

Districts have reduced staff, combined positions, taken pay freezes as well as a countless number of other initiatives in order to be more efficient as their student population decreased. Note: student population from FY11 to FY16 is the time frame used for budget purposes. Rural districts have made efforts to remain efficient. Using per pupil expenditure to demonstrate efficiency the study indicated that 49 percent of the urban districts spend more than $12,037 per pupil. Comparatively only 7 percent of rural districts exceed this mark for per pupil expenditures. As stated earlier, urban districts will receive nearly $500 more per pupil than rural districts.

Second, Budget Director Keen indicated that rural districts have cash balances that will offset their reduction of funds. I would like to point out that the cash balances referred to by Director Keen are very much like the Ohio Budget Stabilization Fund (aka “the rainy-day fund”), which Keen maintains is for fiscal emergencies. Remember not all rural schools have cash balances. However, if there is a cash balance it too is for unforeseen circumstances (emergencies) such as future financial uncertainty, building issues, transportation, increased healthcare costs, and permanent improvements as well as long term projects. It appears the state is punishing rural districts for being good stewards of the taxpayer’s money.

Finally, Director Keen states the increased property tax revenue as another reason for rural districts to offset the loss in funding. This was also cited as a factor during the last biennium budget. The reality is the increase in revenue from property tax does not offset the amount of funding that is being reduced in rural districts.

It seems fitting that we are discussing funding as we enter the 20-year anniversary of the DeRolph case. This landmark court case declared Ohio’s school funding as unconstitutional. In an era when the state mandates consequences and timelines for state testing as well as expecting increased accountability for students, staffs, and communities, legislators have yet to follow this court order to fix educational funding.

It just seems inevitable that every two years the rural schools of Ohio must fight for equitable funding to provide a quality, thorough and efficient education for our students. We appreciate the earnest efforts of those legislators, area superintendents and educators voicing their concerns to change the inequities in Governor Kasich’s budget proposal.