Ohio School Districts Frustrated by Budget Impasse

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Some school districts across Ohio are becoming increasingly concerned over the lack of a state budget fix, as they face potential deep cuts that would affect the classroom after Dec. 31.

Some officials are still optimistic that state lawmakers won't let the worst-case scenario become reality, but they voiced strong frustrations with what they view are political games being played in Columbus.

Republicans who control the Senate canceled two committee meetings planned for this week, signaling that a budget deal won't come until next week at the earliest. There are no session days scheduled during the week of Christmas or the following week, though lawmakers could choose to schedule them.

Gov. Ted Strickland and fellow Democrats want to delay the final 4.2 percent planned income tax reduction to fill the $850 million hole, while most Republicans won't support what they view as a tax increase.

The tax cut is the final round of a five-year 21 percent reduction. Many Republicans believe it's a tax increase because it increases a tax rate from what's already in law.

The tax plan would replace money from a failed effort to raise funds from slot machines at Ohio's horse racing tracks, which the Ohio Supreme Court said must be given the chance to go before voters as a referendum in November 2010. If lawmakers don't figure out a fix by the end of the year, or pass legislation to move money around from other programs, school districts will bear the cost. Lawmakers can't change tax rates for the 2009 tax year once 2010 begins.

"We're very concerned," said David Varda, executive director of the Ohio Association of School Business Officials. "We are probably getting close to panicked. We are hoping to get our members more active in making our senators more aware of the repercussions of not acting on this."

Those repercussions may include larger classes because of teacher cuts, fewer administrators, fewer textbooks and supplies — and potential deficits that would require borrowing money. The districts in the worst spots are those with a low property tax base and high state funding, which includes many city districts and poorer rural areas.

"I would not want to be a legislator and have to stand in front of the citizenry and explain why certain members of our communities got tax breaks and yet our school districts have gone into deficits and financial crisis," said Jonathan Boyd, treasurer of Cincinnati Public Schools, which has cut 1,500 employees over the past five years to account for diminishing state funds. "There has been sufficient time to resolve this. Some people are intent on achieving more than just balancing the budget."

Cincinnati schools face a $7.5 million cut out of a $75 million in state funding over the first six months of 2010, Boyd said.

Zanesville City Schools face losing $1.7 million to $2.5 million of the $17.7 million they are supposed to receive from the state. Teachers would have less individual time with students and the supply of materials, including textbooks, would suffer, said Superintendent Terry Martin.

"When you are already cut as lean as a filet mignon, it's hard to find the next layer of fat to cut away," Martin said. "I'm just not seeing much desire for these two political parties to come together. It seems like they are always trying to one-up each other."

While Martin said he's already begun drafting a contingency plan, Boyd said the potential cuts are something he thinks about late at night after he's gotten through the day.

Senate Republicans are willing to provide five votes for Strickland's tax plan, as long as prison sentencing changes and an overhaul of the state's 130-year-old construction contracting procedures are included. Those five votes would be added to all 12 Democratic votes to get a majority behind the bill.

"We're not playing political games," said Senate President Bill Harris. "The issue is, I don't have the votes to pass a tax increase. He (the governor) doesn't have the votes to pass construction reform. Those are difficult issues."

But Strickland said those policies still need vetting and have no business being jammed into the narrowly focused effort to address the shortfall.

"The closer we get to December 31st, the greater the instability and uncertainty there is for school districts," said Strickland spokeswoman Amanda Wurst.

A group of influential education and health and human services organizations, under the banner of the Campaign to Protect Ohio's Future, called on lawmakers to end the stalemate on Wednesday.

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