Cincinnati Seeks State Loan in Wake of Tax-Levy Defeat

By Jonathan Weisman — November 14, 1990 5 min read
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Following a decisive defeat at the polls on a critical tax levy, the Cincinnati school district last week filed for an emergency state loan to keep its schools open.

“Around here we call it bankruptcy,” said Lynn Goodwin, the district’s deputy superintendent and treasurer.

By 58.3 percent to 41.6 percent, city voters rejected the $30-million levy, placing the district at the mercy of the state, said Tom Mooney, president of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers.

If the loan is approved, the state will have considerable control over the district’s budget, and union officials and district administrators said they were preparing for the worst.

“They’re not going to make the loan process pleasant,” Mr. Mooney predicted.

Observers said voters sent the same messages to many school districts in last week’s elections: tighten the purse strings and clean house.

Cincinnati’s tax-hike defeat was joined elsewhere in the state by levy failures in Toledo and Columbus.

In Minnesota, St. Paul voters narrowly turned down a well-publicized levy, despite a pledge by school-board members to stake their political futures on gains in student achievement they said depended on increased funding. Minneapolis voters, however, approved the first tax hike for education sought there in 25 years. (See Education Week, Oct. 24, 1990.)

In school-board elections, voters in San Francisco rejected all three incumbents seeking re-election, while District of Columbia voters turnedone incumbent and two other candidates deemed supportive of that system’s embattled superintendent.

The levy defeats in Ohio point to what officials in that state say is a school-finance system in disarray.

About 50 percent of funding for schools there comes from local property taxes, with another 50 percent provided from state coffers, according to Mr. Mooney of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers.

According to state law, property-tax levels must be adjusted downward as property values rise, resulting in no net gain in school funding, Mr. Mooney said. Meanwhile, he noted, state funding has risen half as fast as the rate of inflation.

“The voters are plagued by the school systems’ continually coming back for another levy,” he said, beexisting tax structures cannot support expenditures.

Cincinnati voters said no this time, Mr. Mooney suggested, in part because of frustration with the school system and anger over new federal taxes, but mainly because the levy was the only tax they got to vote on.

With a $30-million deficit and only enough money to stay afloat till April, Cincinnati will now join the 38 other Ohio districts that have tapped into the school-loan fund, said Robert Moore, assistant state superintendent of public instruction.

If the district has to return to the state for a second loan and that loan equals at least 7 percent of the district’s total budget, he said, the state will place the Cincinnati schools under receivership, forcing the district to scale down its operations to the state’s minimum education standards in order to get back in the black.

Mr. Moore said it had not been decided how large the first loan to the district would be.

The prospect of reducing its operations to the minimum standards has the district sweating, Mr. Mooney said. According to the union president, the state says Cincinnati has 600 more teachers than those standards require. None of the district’s 469 teaching assistants are needed in order to meet the standards, he said, and 130 maintenance- and cleaning-staff members could be laid off.

For now, many of the teachers are protected by the union’s collective-bargaining contract, he said, but that contract expires at the end of the year and the state could make it difficult to forge a new one.

“We just hope the [school] board is going to join us in saying we’re not going to cut educational services,” Mr. Mooney said.

The outlook for the district depends on whether it can make due with one loan and get a levy passed next year, according to Mr. Moore.

In St. Paul, school-board members had drawn attention to a proposed six-year, $117-million levy by signing pledges not to run for office again if the school district did not meet certain educational-improvement goals by 1995.

But voters last week turned down the levy by 51 percent to 49 percent.

The school board has not given up, said its chairman, Margo Fox. The members will try to persuade businesses and community members to support some or all of the programs planned to help meet the goals, with or without a new tax.

“We’ll see what comes out of the citizen-involvement process,” Ms. Fox said. “The needs that sparked our going for the referendum still exist.”

St. Paul’s twin school board in Minneapolis had better luck. Minneapolis voters approved by a 30-percentage-point spread their first school-tax hike in a quarter-century.

The six-year property-tax increase is expected to generate some $136.2 million to reduce class sizes and expand early-childhood and teacher-training programs.

In San Francisco, the defeat of the three incumbent board members up for re-election opens up a new chapter in that district’s history, observers said.

“We’ve really changed the gene pool,” said Tom Ammiano, the top vote-getter in the at-large election. “We’ve messed with it. Now we have to take responsibility.”

Mr. Ammiano, Carlota del Por and Dan Kelly will replace Sedonia Wilson, Rosario Anaya, and Myra Kopf in January.

The defeat of Ms. Wilson and Ms. Anaya, who have generally sided with another member who was not facing re-election, effectively ends a voting bloc that has often bitterly divided the seven-person board, said Joan-Marie Shelley, president of the United Educators of San Francisco.

Ms. Shelley said the board should now be able to act more smoothly and decisively. “Everyone will recognize that the voters expressed a great deal of disgust at the way the board has conducted themselves,” she said.

The three-member bloc that collapsed last week has often clashed with Superintendent Ramon C. Cortines. But a spokesman for the superintendent said Mr. Cortines, who has said he plans to leave his post, would not now be persuaded to stay.

“He has decided on his career path, regardless of the board membership, and I don’t think the board election will change that,” said Thomas Sammon, Mr. Cortines’s executive assistant.

Predictions in the District of Columbia are also for smoother sailing.

Incumbent R. Calvin Lockridge, a 12-year board veteran, was defeated by an almost 2-to-1 margin by Linda Moody, a parent activist. Mr. Lockridge’s confrontational style made him a controversial figure, said William H. Simons, president of the Washington Teachers Union.

Observers said the defeat of Mr. Lockridge, who has been a strong supporter of Superintendent Andrew E. Jenkins, and of two school-board hopefuls also favorable to Mr. Jenkins made it unlikely the board would reverse its decision to seek a new superintendent. The board earlier this year decided it would replace Mr. Jenkins when his contract expires in June.

A version of this article appeared in the November 14, 1990 edition of Education Week as Cincinnati Seeks State Loan in Wake of Tax-Levy Defeat


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