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City school levy not seen as cure-all

YOUNGSTOWN — There’s a back story to the renewal levy Youngstown voters are being asked to support this fall for the city schools.

It i……ncludes chapters on a changed economy, economic disadvantage, academic performance and the money being spent to cure these problems.

Administrative authority was stripped from the school board and given to the district’s chief executive officer with the passage of House Bill 70 in 2015. State academic distress commissions have been in the district since 2010.

But the school board, not the CEO, kept its authority to go to voters for a levy.

Last month, the Youngstown Board of Education decided, at CEO Justin Jennings’ request and after much debate, to ask voters to renew an emergency tax levy for the troubled school district, which has most recently received four overall Ohio School Report Card failing grades.

The school district’s total revenue is $125 million. The levy would raise an estimated $5.29 million per year for four years with a rate of 10.8 mills.

HOMEOWNERS

Mahoning County Auditor Ralph Meacham said the millage rate — $1 per $1,000 of assessed value — is charged against a third of the fair market value of a home. The median home value of houses sold in Youngstown is $26,200, according to Zillow.

The renewal would cost the owner of a $30,000 house $100 annually; a $60,000 residence would be $200 per year; and a $100,000 residence would be $334 per year, Meacham said.

Karen Considine, the parent of two district students, said the levy isn’t that much in the grand scheme of things.

“I vote for levies mainly as a moral principle,” Considine said. “I believe citizens and their

communities should support their schools.”

Considine said, however, that the Youngstown City School District has received more money than almost any other local school district — and that really hasn’t solved its problems.

According to the Ohio School Report Cards, the YCSD spends $12,634 per pupil, 30 percent more than the state average of $9,724 per pupil.

Even though funding is above average, the YCSD is ranked on the Ohio Department of Education 2019 Performance Index Ranking next to last – 607 out of 608 – out of all Ohio public school districts. The Performance Index is a calculation that measures student performance on the Ohio Achievement Assessments/Ohio Graduate Tests at grades 3 to 8 and English I, English II, Algebra I, Geometry, Integrated Math I and Integrated Math II.

MANY FACTORS

“It’s a socio-economic problem; it’s a cultural problem, and until those things are addressed, you’re not going to see a lot [of change],” Considine said.

Ulrich Boser, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and founder and CEO of The Learning Agency, said the American Community Survey lists Youngstown as having a 57 percent poverty rate.

Boser said when looking at the data, it is evident that poverty has a tremendous negative impact on student outcomes, both in terms of emotions, health and achievement. These forces are challenging to overcome.

“While Youngstown spends a little more than average on people, I just wonder if that is enough,” Boser said.

In voting on the renewal request, school board member Ronald Shadd wanted the community to understand that before 2017, the district had a $23 million surplus in its unreserved cash balance.

“Now we’re facing a $29 million deficit with the passage of the levy,” Shadd said.

A budget forecast done in May, prior to cuts being made, shows the deficit at the end of the renewal levy’s four-year run.

“So, that’s why we’re putting such an emphasis that once the community puts up their fair share toward the children’s education, we want to ensure that those dollars are used in a way to sustain our district,” Shadd said.

REGULAR BUDGET

District CEO Jennings said the levy money is part of the district’s regular operating budget, necessary because the district does not know how much funding the state government will provide in the future.

The “forecast is a … guesstimate” and is “changeable,” he said.

As for the district’s deficit even with levy passage: “Mr. Shadd is absolutely right,” Jennings said.

“There was $23 million, and some of that money was spent. I’ve been very transparent on what that money was spent on. We’re making cuts. These things have to happen in order for us to balance the budget.”

This year’s budget is $2.4 million in the black, even after a $1 million state funding cut, and that hasn’t happened in a long time, he said.

Still, the CEO noted the only way for the school district to increase revenue is to get “butts” back in the seats — meaning attracting and retaining students.

According to the board of education Enrollment Growth Report, about half – 4,925 of 9,760 – of Youngstown students are enrolled in schools other than the district schools. This is due to community and STEM schools, open enrollment, and EdChoice and Cleveland scholarship programs.

“The district has to figure out a way to bring students back to the school district who are attending elsewhere,” Jennings said.

BOARD DEBATE

For the immediate future, the school board is asking city voters to renew their support.

“I think we need to pass this (levy) today simply because of our condition and even if we were not in this condition, we still need that renewal, to continue to move forward and educate our students to the best of our ability,” Brenda Kimble, the school board president, said prior to the board’s July vote.

Board member Jackie Adair said she wanted more information to make an educated decision.

“This is not our money,” Adair said. “This is the taxpayers’ money.”

She said she would vote for the levy if someone could convince her it’s necessary.

The board voted 6-1 in support of the levy.

Adair, the sole dissenting vote, said she had several reasons for her refusal to support the measure.

Adair said she was an East High School graduate before the closing of the local steel mills in the 1970s and believes she had an outstanding education.

“When I was a child, the steel mills were jumping around here,” Adair said. “You didn’t need a high school diploma to get a job at the mills, and they paid a decent wage.”

After the mills closed, the economic situation changed, Adair said.

A large part of Youngstown Sheet and Tube closed on Sept. 19, 1977, “Black Monday,” putting 5,000 out of work, and as many as 50,000 into the mid-1980s.

“We should have been diversifying all along, but nobody could see down the road,” Adair said. “What ended up happening, the mindset you didn’t need to have a high school diploma to do anything, never really left us.”

Adair said problems at the schools include attendance for both students and teachers, above-market wages for some personnel, too few teachers of color retained and low expectations of students.

“The district has really been tumbling into oblivion,” Adair said.

news@tribtoday.com

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