“What we reminded the taxpayer is that when they first built those buildings, they said that they had figured they would have the money for maintenance all down.”
He added, “Now they’re coming along and saying, ‘Oh, now we need money to maintain these buildings.’ But wait a minute, that was part of your promises from last time.”
Citing the Hyde Park building, Brinkman also claimed that the school district said it would be unable to open certain buildings if it did not get the 2011 levy. But the levy didn’t pass, and the Hyde Park school ended up reopening anyway. This, to Brinkman, is proof the school district tends to exaggerate when campaigning for a levy.
COAST’s opposition for this year’s levy renewal is more about the levy’s timing and less about the school district. Brinkman says COAST definitely wants to hold the school accountable for its performance with the threat of taxpayer dollars, and at a few points in the conversation he cited recent reports that CPS regressed in some areas in this year’s preliminary report card data, which the state government provides in an attempt to rate schools around Ohio. In the preliminary data, CPS failed to meet federal standards for advancing different student sub-groups, such as minorities; but the school district did manage to meet standards for year-to-year advancement in state testing for students between third and eighth grade.
But, again, the current results aren’t the main focus for COAST. Brinkman says the organization is more interested in the timing of the levy renewal this time around.
“The money does not go away until January of 2014,” Brinkman says. “It’s a five-year levy. The reason we have five-year levies is so the public can gauge after four or four and a half years how the entity where the taxes are going to is doing with the money.”
From that perspective, it’s important to COAST that the levy is brought up for renewal as late in the game as possible, meaning November 2013. That way, Brinkman says, the school can be held accountable for what it does with all the levy money.
But Sutmoller disagrees with that approach. He says the school district plans out its spending for years ahead, so knowing the money is ready in advance greatly benefits CPS. Plus, with the extra year, Sutmoller says CPS can bring the levy renewal up again in May and November 2013 in case voters reject renewal this November. Sutmoller says bringing up the levy now gives CPS more room to plan its budgetary future.
Falling into red
Diana Whitt, treasurer for CPS, says the school district is not having budget problems because of irresponsibility. She says the school has tried to be responsible, as demonstrated by a decade of cuts, but multiple outside factors have consistently reduced the school’s budget.
One factor is widespread economic hardship brought on by the recent recession and nationwide housing crisis. Whitt says she was “primarily looking at foreclosures” as the cause for losses from property tax revenue. In total, the school lost $2.18 million due to an 8-percent devaluation from a Dec. 31, 2011 reappraisal of the city of Cincinnati.
Whitt says actions by local and state governments have limited funds as well. According to the CPS budget numbers in the school district’s five-year forecast, the state government reduced spending to CPS by about $30.9 million in the 2013 fiscal year relative to the 2011 fiscal year.
However, nearly $11.5 million of that came from the loss of federal stimulus funds, which were always set to expire in the 2012 fiscal year. So only about $19.4 million of those cuts are attributable to a direct cut in state funding. Most of those cuts came from the phasing out of the Tangible Personal Property (TPP) reimbursements, a subsidy that some schools — including CPS — disproportionately benefited from. In total, the drop in TPP reimbursements cost CPS about $21.4 million in the 2013 fiscal year. The state raised other aid by nearly $2 million, which helped mitigate the loss of the subsidy.
The city of Cincinnati made cuts as well, which led to $1.9 million less in funds for the 2013 fiscal year. On a county level, Hamilton County slashed $1 million in funds to CPS for the 2013 fiscal year.
In total, government cuts add up to $33.8 million less funds in the 2013 fiscal year, or about 7.4 percent of the current CPS budget.
On top of government cuts, Duke Energy announced in June 2010 that it was appealing its property tax estimate. If Duke Energy’s appeal is successful, schools will lose $7 million in funding every year, and schools will also have to retroactively reimburse Duke Energy for any excess tax payments.
Among all these cuts, by far the largest are coming from the state government by the way of education cuts and cuts in financial aid to counties. In July, Innovation Ohio and Policy Matters Ohio launched a website to show the impacts. The Cuts Hurt Ohio website uses an interactive map to show how much each county is losing by comparing the 2010-2011 budget, which was passed by former Gov. Ted Strickland, and the 2012-2013 budget, which was passed by Kasich.
In Hamilton County, state government cuts to education amounted to $136 million, and state government cuts to county aid added up to $105 million, according to the website. Statewide, the government is slashing education funding by $1.8 billion, and counties will be receiving $1.08 billion less from the state government.
A substantial amount of these cuts come from the loss of federal stimulus funds that Ohio was getting, but not all. The 2012-2013 budget pulled funding to the Ohio Department of Education down to $9.8 billion for the 2013 fiscal year — lower than the amount of funding education received before Ohio obtained federal stimulus programs.
Nichols, spokesperson for Kasich, says the cuts were necessary because Ohio is constitutionally required to balance budgets.
“The reality is we walked into an $8 billion budget deficit,” he says. “We had to fix that.”
Nichols claims most of the cuts came from “reforming programs,” but some cuts did have to make their way into the budget. But he insists the cuts should not be too emphasized: “Cincinnati schools saw less than 3 percent of core budget cuts as a result of the loss of state aid.”
Still, the “less than 3 percent,” which refers to the 2012 fiscal year, is equal to about $12.8 million in a $450 million budget. That’s a substantial amount for a school district that already has to tighten its belt due to an afflicted economy.
And the 2013 fiscal year saw even bigger cuts with about $19.4 million in state aid cuts — about 4.3 percent of the budget.
Budget deficit, innovation surplus
Despite the lower funding and cuts, CPS has made some innovations in recent years. In 2000, the school district began its community learning center program, which has since evolved into a much bigger part of getting an education at CPS. Martin Blank, president of the Institute for Educational Leadership based in Washington, D.C., praised CPS’s program, calling it one of the best in the nation.
A community learning center is a hub in which multiple aspects of the community come together to meet a goal set by schools and the community at large. These programs can cover a huge variety of needs — education, health care, community organizing, after-school programs and preparing for college are just a few examples — but they come together at the “focal point” of a school to improve communities and schools overall.
Blank says the program, which brings needs beyond academic achievement into the focus at schools, boosts academic achievement. Although he’s careful not to draw a direct correlation since there is no strong research in the area, he points to the dramatically rising graduation rates in CPS since the community learning center initiative began in 2000. Between 2000 and 2010, graduation rates at CPS went from 51 to 81.9 percent.
“What we know is that what the community learning centers do is what middle- and upper-middle-class parents do for their children,” Blank says. “Cincinnati is trying to do that for its most vulnerable children because that’s the equitable approach to educating them.”
He added, “Indeed, the results are good for the city. Instead of having a fragmented system and an inefficient system of getting help to kids, you have a system that is responsive and well integrated. I would suggest that the teachers in these community learning centers feel a sense of greater support from their communities and perform at higher levels because of it, but I don’t have research that tells me that.”
To Blank, CPS’s community learning center program is unique for five main reasons: It brings more community leaders together, including leaders at the school, United Way, the school union and health, community and family foundations; school board policy demands all schools must be community learning centers; a majority of schools have resource coordinators, which Blank says are pivotal for integrating the work of the school and its partners; the school has a cross-boundary leadership team that “brings together people who lead collaborative efforts in Cincinnati focused on particular topics,” such as after-school programs, mental health programs and mentoring; and strong community engagement between residents, students, teachers and administrators.
The sort of community engagement can even lead to new schools. Blank says parents at East End and Oyler knew their kids weren’t getting the best education they could at bigger high schools, so they used community engagement to get new, closer facilities built.
“The school board responded, and you’ve seen graduation rates for those children in that neighborhood that we’ve never seen before,” Blank says. “Is there further to go? Of course there is. But they’re making tremendous progress.”
CPS says the community learning centers program isn’t its only innovation. The school district is also proud of its Elementary Initiative, which CPS has used to target 16 problematic elementary schools with new data-driven goals, funding realignment, greater focus on math and reading, stronger leadership and a summer program called “Fifth Quarter” that extends the school year by a month. In an email, Christine Wolff, another spokesperson for CPS, credited the program with providing a “dramatic turnaround” in struggling elementary schools over the past three school years.
The program recently found national praise and attention, and the University of Virginia is studying the potential of the initiative in other schools.
CPS knows it needs Issue 42 to pass to avoid having to reduce its budget by another 11 percent. But the levy alone will not solve all its problems. No one knows exactly how the new state funding formula will work, and the federal government is facing massive budget problems that could lead to education cuts.
Beyond the funding uncertainties, education changes already approved by the state present a few problems to Cincinnati’s schools. The state is currently working on a new grading system, which it will use to measure if and how schools are progressing or regressing in different areas. In a simulation released by the Ohio Department of Education in May, CPS performed poorly under the new system. The simulation, which used 2010-2011 data, found most local schools would significantly drop in grades. In particular, 23 Cincinnati schools would flunk under the new system. Overall, CPS would drop from the second-best rating of “Effective” under the old system to a “D-” under the new system.
If the simulation’s example holds up, CPS should expect grim evaluations from the state in the future. That could lead to funding cuts and stricter standards with higher costs — not good signs for a school already struggling to make ends meet.
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