EDUCATION Ohio levy failures put athletics, buses on the line



Gov. Bob Taft is awaiting recommendations from a task force.
Ohio school districts say they must trim bus service or could require families to start paying for pupils to participate in sports and other extracurricular activities after voters rejected three-quarters of the property tax increase proposals.
Voters turned down 77 of 103 tax issues for schools Tuesday, the largest number of requests in at least two decades for an August special election, education officials said. The 25 percent passage rate was the lowest in five years, the state Department of Education said.
That has forced school districts to find alternative ways to cover costs.
Parma and Fairfield
In the Parma district in suburban Cleveland, voters turned down a 5.9-mill levy which would have generated $18 million annually. The district hopes to save $1.2 million, about one-fifth of its transportation budget, by ending high school transportation and limiting bus service to pupils who live at least two miles from their schools.
"Parents should be more concerned about us having 33, 34, 35 kids in a classroom. We could lay off more teachers and keep busing, but that's not what we're here to do," said Kevin Kelley, president of Parma's school board.
Kelley said that because of the cuts, his wife will have to start driving their two children to elementary school each morning.
Voters in the Fairfield school district in Butler County, about 20 miles north of Cincinnati, turned down a 6.9-mill levy which would have generated $9.1 million annually. District officials said that could require a pay-to-participate policy for extracurricular activities including athletics and the marching band.
But a voluntary program that was begun as a safety net for extracurricular programs after Fairfield voters rejected a similar levy in March could soften the impact, district officials said. Otherwise, families could pay as much as $630 per pupil per sport at the high school level.
Under the voluntary program, parents and guardians make contributions to help pay for district extracurricular activities.
After the March levy defeat, the Fairfield school board implemented $3 million in cuts to balance the budget for the 2004-05 school year and eliminated extracurricular activities, high school busing and field trips.
Edgewood
In the Edgewood school district in Butler County, about 25 miles north of Cincinnati, voters turned down by 2-to-1 a 6.9-mill levy that would have raised about $2.5 million a year. Edgewood officials said that if the levy had been approved, they could have ended the financially pressed district's requirement that parents pay for their children to participate in athletics and other extracurricular activities.
Edgewood charges a $266 fee for competitive activities, $168 for noncompetitive activities and $113 for middle-school activities.
The Ohio School Boards Association, which represents all of the state's public school boards, said the levy failures highlight the continuing problems with Ohio's reliance on local property taxes to fund kindergarten through grade 12 education. Critics who have fought with the state in court over the school funding system say that it creates inequity between wealthier and poorer school districts statewide.
"The last two elections have set high-water marks with the number of levies on the ballot," said Fred Pausch, the association's director of legislative services. The March 2 ballot included 227 school tax issues.
The Ohio Supreme Court ruled three times in five years that the state's educational system was unconstitutional because it created disparities between rich and poor districts. In May 2003, the court ruled 5-2 to end the case and ordered state officials to fix the system, but then gave up jurisdiction and blocked any further action in the state court system.
Gov. Bob Taft created a panel early this year to study school funding and recommend new ways of state support.
Taft expects recommendations by year's end from the task force, so that he can incorporate those into the next budget proposal he sends to the Ohio General Assembly in early 2005, spokesman Orest Holubec said Thursday.
"He does believe we need a better way to fund the schools," Holubec said of the governor.

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