By Mary McCleary
School districts all over Ohio are scrambling to make ends meet. More often than not, their ideas of making tough choices include laying off teachers and other staff members, cutting fine arts and sports programs, and slashing funds allotted to transportation, technology and textbooks.
When levies are placed on the ballot, school districts make it very clear to residents, many of whom have children in the schools, that students will have fewer opportunities and that class sizes will increase if the levies do not pass. Essentially, voters are given a guilt trip: to vote against school levies is to vote against the kids. This approach is little more than emotional blackmail.
When school districts face budget deficits, almost no area is immune from cuts – except teachers’ and administrators’ salaries. While families are told their children will receive less classroom attention and fewer enrichment opportunities, teachers and administrators continue to receive pay raises and longevity bonuses.
The real crisis in educational funding is not the lack of tax revenues. Instead, it is the failure to restrain spending on teachers’ and administrators’ salaries – the biggest part of any school district budget. In many districts, the per-pupil costs have skyrocketed and teachers’ salaries have grown at rates that far outpace inflation.
Here are several examples in Franklin County:
• Columbus. Between 1998 and 2009, enrollment decreased by 18.4percent, but the per-pupil expenditure increased by 90.4 percent, from $7,181 to $13,673, far outpacing inflation, which was 29 percent. From 2001 to 2009, the average teacher’s pay increased 41.2 percent, from $45,814 to $64,680, while inflation was 21 percent. Prorated to the standard full work year of 2,080 hours (teachers contractually work 1,350 hours), the average teacher would have earned $99,655 in 2009. Had the average teacher’s salary increased with inflation from 2001 to 2009, Columbus would have saved nearly $30 million in 2009.
• Gahanna-Jefferson . Between 1998 and 2009, enrollment grew by 5.5 percent, but the per-pupil expenditure increased by 80 percent, from $6,271 to $11,289. Similarly, average teacher’s pay increased by 44 percent from $46,733 in 2001 to $67,494 in 2009. Prorated to the standard full work year, the average teacher would have earned $103,991 in 2009. Had the average salary increased with the rate of inflation from 2001 to 2009, Gahanna would have saved $5 million in 2009.
• Hilliard . Between 1998 and 2009, enrollment grew by 37.5 percent, yet per-pupil expenditures increased by 76.2 percent from $6,070 to $10,697. From 2001 to 2009, the average teacher’s pay increased 42.7 percent from $45,352 to $64,703. Prorated to the standard full work year, the average teacher would have earned $99,690 in 2009. Had the average salary increased with the rate of inflation from 2001 to 2009, Hilliard would have saved $8.5 million in 2009.
When a school district asks for more money, taxpayers have the chance to examine spending and decide whether an increase is warranted. If the school district is not restraining costs or if it is spending frivolously, the taxpayers can send a clear message to the school district that it needs to make do with the resources it has been given. Thus, district residents can hold their schools accountable – for now.
The 2009 Ohio budget created a new kind of levy: the conversion levy. If passed, this levy would create a permanent, indefinite increase in property taxes and, consequently, in school revenues. Had a conversion levy been passed in 1998, Columbus schools would have collected an additional $170 million in revenue between 1998 and 2008 without the district ever having to go back to the voters. Likewise, during the same period, Hilliard and Gahanna would have collected an additional $43 million and $20 million, respectively, had the districts passed conversion levies in 1998. Fundamentally, the conversion levy removes the best accountability measure taxpayers have to keep their school districts in check.
By cutting various programs to save money, school districts continue to nibble on the margins without making any real strides toward solving the systemic funding crisis.
While teachers and administrators continue to receive salary increases that far outpace the rate of inflation, many of their private-sector neighbors are taking pay cuts, losing jobs and struggling to make ends meet. It is unfair to saddle these folks with higher property taxes at a time when we are in the worst single decade for investors since the 1830s, just so teachers can be compensated at a level that is out of touch with economic reality.
This article was written by Mary McCleary while she worked at the Buckeye Institute and originally appeared in The Columbus Dispatch.