Education Funding

Cincinnati Leaders Divided Over School Levy

By Karla Scoon Reid — October 26, 2004 6 min read
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Frustrated by what they call unfulfilled promises, unexplained expenses, and minimal academic progress, some of Cincinnati’s most powerful business and religious leaders are withholding their support of the district’s tax-levy renewal on the Nov. 2 ballot.

Cincinnati is one of many communities nationwide where voters face critical education issues. The outcomes of votes in Cleveland; Detroit; Multnomah County, Ore.; Pinellas County, Fla.; San Diego; San Francisco, and elsewhere will affect districts’ budgets and leadership.

The Cincinnati Business Committee and the city’s Baptist Ministers Conference followed through last week on a threat made in April to withdraw their support for levies. Citing concerns over the district’s spending, what they see as the school board’s tendency to micromanage, and a lack of minority contractors in the system’s $1 billion construction program, they want assurances that taxpayers’ money would be spent wisely to raise students’ test scores. (“Cincinnati Group Calls for More Power for Superintendent,” April 14, 2004.)

“We can no longer continue to support mediocrity,” the Rev. Calvin A. Harper, the president of the ministers’ group, said last week. “We’ve got to get their attention. Defeating the levy is the way to do it.”

But Susan Taylor, the president of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers, called the groups’ position unethical.

“Frankly, the fingers are being pointed the wrong way,” said Ms. Taylor, whose union is an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. “If this issue goes down, it will be the children who will be hurt.”

15 Percent of Budget

Cincinnati is seeking the renewal of a tax levy that generates $65.2 million annually for schools, or almost 15 percent of the district’s $469 million budget. While the 39,000-student system was $20 million over budget this fiscal year, Jan Leslie, the manager of the tax-levy campaign, said that the increased costs were largely a result of higher-than-expected charter school enrollment and were recouped by tapping cash reserves.

While the Baptist ministers will ask their congregations to oppose the levy, the Cincinnati Business Committee is pulling its financial support, said Phillip R. Cox, the group’s chairman. The committee, made up of 25 chief executive officers of the city’s top employers, has consistently backed school levies, pumping up to $1.5 million into each of the past campaigns.

Mr. Cox, who contended that Superintendent Alton Frailey has been undercut by the school board’s meddling, said the committee believes it is premature to support the levy while the district’s financial footing is still in question. Once an independent task force completes its review of the district budget, Mr. Cox said, the committee will consider supporting a levy renewal in February or May.

If the Nov. 2 levy fails, the district would have to cut $32.5 million from its fiscal 2006 budget when the planning process begins in December, Ms. Leslie said. The May primary election falls after the deadline to notify employees of their job status, she noted.

Tax Votes

In Cleveland, by contrast, the district faces no organized opposition to its effort to raise taxes. But the vote is considered an uphill battle nonetheless.

The 67,000-student district is asking voters in one of the nation’s poorest cities to support a tax increase that would generate $68 million annually for the public schools. The money would help stop the fiscal hemorrhaging that led to the elimination of 1,200 jobs this past summer and cuts of $100 million from the district’s $600 million budget for fiscal 2005.

Arnold R. Pinkney, the tax-levy campaign manager, is focusing on getting renters and public-housing residents whose children attend public schools out to vote. For senior citizens, his message is stark: “If the children in urban school districts are not educated, the price society will pay is much greater.”

In Oregon’s Multnomah County, a ballot measure would repeal a three-year, 1.25 percent personal-income-tax increase approved by Portland-area voters last year. The tax generated about $67 million for schools, social services, and public-safety programs in 2003-04. (“Ore. Activists Seek to Dismantle Special Local Tax,” April 21, 2004.)

Jason D. Williams, the executive director of the Taxpayer Association of Oregon, an anti-tax group based in Tigard, said the increase is chasing jobs and taxpayers out of the county.

But if the appeal passes, school district officials predict that the Portland schools alone would have to cut an estimated $50 million from their $484 million fiscal 2005 budget.

In Florida, the situation for the Pinellas County schools is not so dire. But the 113,000-student district, including St. Petersburg, has proposed a property-tax increase that would generate $26 million annually. Of that amount, $21 million would be used to give teachers up to a 6 percent raise; the rest would finance school programs.

Bill Heller, who is leading the district’s tax campaign, said Pinellas County needs to hire more teachers to meet Florida’s class-size mandates, but is finding it difficult to retain teachers once their salaries plateau by their fifth or sixth year in the classroom. The average annual teacher salary in the county is $41,000.

“You can only sell so much sunshine,” said Michelle Dennard, the president of the Pinellas County Teachers Association, “especially in light of all the storms we’ve had.”

Leadership Questions

In Detroit, Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick is asking voters to give him the authority to hire the schools’ chief executive and make the elected board advisory. The Detroit Regional Chamber supports giving the mayor more say.

If residents vote no, the city will switch to an elected, 11-member school board in 2006. When the state took over the 151,000-student district in 1999, the elected board was replaced by a seven-member “reform board,” whose members were largely appointed by the mayor. (“Detroit Voters Face Options on School Board,” April 14, 2004.)

“How can we go back into a system from 1999 and expect different results?” said Greg Handel, the chamber’s senior director of workforce development.

In San Diego, school board elections have tended to center on Superintendent Alan D. Bersin, who has maintained a three-member majority on the five-member board during his six-year tenure.

Mr. Bersin isn’t seeking an extension to his contract, which ends in 2006. So the six candidates vying for three open board seats next month are focusing on his nationally watched education reform efforts, pledging to abandon parts that have failed.

In San Francisco, observers say that Superintendent Arlene Ackerman could lose her 4-3 majority on the school board. Among the 12 candidates for four seats on the board, four incumbents are seeking re-election—two supporters and two critics of the schools chief.

Bill Jackson, the president and chief executive officer of the San Francisco-based Internet site Greatschools.net, serves as the campaign treasurer for one incumbent. While most candidates think the superintendent should be more of a “diplomat and unifier,” he said, they also believe that she is headed down the right education track.

In addition, San Francisco voters will consider a measure that would permit noncitizens to vote in local school elections. The measure, proposed by San Francisco Board of Supervisors President Matt Gonzalez, has garnered little media attention.

Fiona Ma, a member of the board of supervisors, said few people are publicly opposing the measure for fear of being labeled anti-immigrant. Ms. Ma predicts the measure will be defeated.

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