Taxed-off residents of the Mahoning Valley: 9
Public school districts in Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana counties: 1
That scorecard of results from school levies in the Mahoning Valley in Tuesday’s general election reflects a failure rate of 90 percent for the 10 Valley districts seeking additional local tax dollars to operate. The one levy that did eke out a victory in Canfield did so by a razor-thin 50.4 percent margin, according to unofficial results from the Mahoning County Board of Elections.
The statewide scorecard shows slightly brighter results, but Ohio school districts and their students remain the biggest losers. Throughout Ohio, only 36 percent of 116 additional property tax, income tax or bond issues garnered voter approval. Fortunately for the solvency of many districts, voters approved all six renewal levies in the Valley this week — meaning no new taxes — and 97 percent of school renewals statewide.
Nonetheless, the enormously high rejection rate for new funding is disturbing. School districts can only pinch so many pennies before academics and finances become seriously endangered.
The increasing pace of additional school levy requests and heightened voter rejection of them statewide should serve as a wake-up call to Ohio education leaders and legislators to fix Ohio’s dysfunctional education system once and for all.
According to the Ohio School Boards Association, since 2003, the total number of school levies in the state has declined. But the rate at which additional levies — those that would raise new taxes — have been sought has doubled. Ten years ago, less than 33 percent of school levies sought additional revenue. Since 2010, that percentage has risen to about 66 percent.
Part of the problem rests with the state’s antiquated and dysfunctional method of funding its public schools. That system was declared unconstitutional several times over the past 16 years, and despite some minor tune-ups, it remains busted. Overreliance of the local property tax has created unequal schools. Rich school districts with high property values provide better education than poor districts with low values. Tuesday’s election results reinforced the failures of that system.
But as witnessed by the rejection Tuesday of additional levies in school districts such as Howland and Columbiana and the close call in Canfield, even voters in relatively affluent school districts say they’ve had enough of digging deeper into their pockets to bail out education.
Ohio relies on local taxes to finance about 50 percent of public-school operations, greater than the U.S. average of 43 percent and far greater than that of other states, such as a 3.5 percent local share in Hawaii or 7.8 percent in Vermont.
UNFUNDED MANDATES HURT
State government also does local school districts no favors when mandating new programs without backing up those mandates with sufficient resources to fund them. In recent years, for example, Ohio has required expensive technological improvements for online testing, rigid Common Core curriculum upgrades, a third-grade “reading guarantee,” higher retention standards, new teacher evaluation programs and other reforms aimed at raising achievement standards of Ohio’s students.
While such mandates may benefit learning, without the resources to adequately fund them, school districts face the prospect of falling deeper and deeper into the red, as the increasing number of districts falling into state-monitored fiscal watch or fiscal emergency illustrates.
Clearly the crisis in Ohio school funding first exposed in the landmark 1997 DeRolph vs. Ohio case has not eased. To avoid an implosion in school budgets and academic quality, it is incumbent upon state leaders to commit themselves to meaningful and tangible reform. Until they do, Ohio’s constitutional guarantee to provide “a thorough and efficient system of common schools’’ will remain seriously imperiled.