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State budget steering Akron schools to financial ‘hard place’

7/11/2013 - West Side Leader
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By Becky Tompkins

There’s good news and bad news for schools in the new two-year, $62 billion Ohio budget that Gov. John Kasich signed June 30.

The Akron Public Schools (APS) stand to receive some $159 million the first year, up from $150 million, said APS Treasurer Jack Pierson during the July 8 meeting.

However, more than $19 million of that money each year is limited to “economically disadvantaged spending,” with restrictions on where that money may go, he said. This allocation may be spent only in areas such as extended school day and year, instructional technology, dropout prevention, school security and academic intervention for sixth through 12th grades, said Pierson.

Some of those areas have seen their funding reduced in recent years, he said, so the district at present is spending only $10 million or $11 million per year in that category.

“We’re counting on money to be able to use for the district’s needs, not state-determined needs,” he said. “We may need to add several million dollars to balance our budget.”

The state has not put restrictions on these education expenditures since 2009, Pierson said. So while the new dollars are good, some $9 million of that poverty-based assistance is needed for other APS expenses, such as all-day kindergarten and reducing class sizes.

The new budget is “more bad news than good news, from my perspective,” Pierson said.

In addition, the new budget puts a cap on public school funding increases at 6.25 percent for 2014 and 10.5 percent for 2015. It also increases public money for vouchers to pay for private school tuition, according to information provided by Pierson.

The new budget also eliminates a property tax subsidy that Ohioans have been enjoying for years. Pierson noted that what the legislature approved, and Kasich signed, does away with the existing 12.5 percent property tax rollback as of November 2013. So from this November on, taxpayers will pay 100 percent of the value of new levies.

This should make school levies harder to pass, Pierson said.

School board member Tim Miller said the new budget put the APS “between a rock and a hard place” financially.

Pierson said while there is not much specific information on the requirements of the new budget yet, he plans to attend a meeting Aug. 12 with representatives from the Ohio Department of Education, the Ohio Association of School Business Officials and the Ohio School Boards Association, among others, at which time more specifics will be available.

That does not leave much time before school starts, so “we’ll have to decide how to spend the money quickly,” said Miller.

Board member the Rev. Curtis Walker noted the budget also eliminates calamity/snow days, changes the way the length of the school year is measured and mandates that home-schooled children must be allowed to participate in extracurricular activities at their local public school, the latter an issue the APS Board wrestled with several years ago.

“We’ll have to compare our policies with the new state law to see if we’re in compliance,” said Superintendent David James.

Walker said he found such policy setting through the budget to be a “frightening” movement toward the government’s “emphasis on taking over public schools, taking them out of the hands of publicly elected officials and putting control in the hands of others” chosen by the state, such as auditors. This is not just in Ohio but all over the country, he said.

In other business, the board approved a contract for Phase 2 early site work and geothermal well fields for the future Firestone/Litchfield Community Learning Center, on the site where Litchfield Middle School was.

Sitetech, Inc., of Grafton, was the lowest responsible bidder at $4.2 million. The work should get under way this summer, said Paul Flesher, APS director of facility planning and capital improvements.

The board’s next regular meeting is scheduled for July 22 at 5:30 p.m. at the Sylvester Small Administration Building, 70 N. Broadway St. in Downtown Akron.

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