After experiencing deep cuts the past two years, Athens County school districts can expect no new money from the state for the next two years under Ohio Gov. John Kasich's education proposal that he rolled out earlier this month.
District-by-district figures were released Wednesday showing all five districts in Athens County flat-funded for 2014 and 2015. This after districts saw cuts in the millions of dollars in Kasich's first biennial budget, leading to the closure of Chauncey Elementary School and levy requests from several local districts.
"If you are poor, you're going to get more; if you're richer, you're going to get less," Kasich promised when rolling out his Achievement Everywhere education plan to statewide administrators earlier this month.
So many were surprised, and various superintendents pulled their support of the plan, when the actual numbers were released showing 60 percent of districts will receive no additional money, including low-wealth districts in Athens County and other parts of Appalachian Ohio.
For instance, Trimble Local School District has the second-lowest median income of all districts in the state, but will see no additional money.
All told, 368 districts across the state will get no additional funding over the next two years, including every district in 12 low-income Appalachian counties, according to the administration's numbers.
When asked about the numbers, Kasich said he hadn't seen them. "No I don't look at those because it's the philosophy that matters," he told the Columbus Dispatch.
Federal-Hocking Supt. George Wood disagreed.
"This budget is just magical thinking," said Wood, whose school district includes much of rural eastern Athens County. Citing Kasich's quote about the numbers, he added, "I have massive news for him: It is about the numbers. You tell children that don't have books that it's not about the numbers but his philosophy that makes it so we can't buy up-to-date materials. I mean, really?"
Wood said that his district is actually even taking a $900,000 decrease according to the numbers because the state is claiming its aid is $6.3 million, but a January settlement from the state has it at $7.2 million.
"So if you 'hold us constant' at $6.3 million, you've cut $900,000," Wood explained.
State Rep. Debbie Phillips, D-Albany, said Saturday that she understands the amounts many districts have received under the current bridge formula are higher than what the Kasich administration's spreadsheets show.
"So if that's the case, they're actually getting cut," she said.
She said that her understanding by looking at the proposal is that the if you do the math on Kasich's formula – that every district raises the equivalent of $250,000 on each levied mill – it works out to $5,000-per-pupil guaranteed.
"Well that's the level of funding that was available per-pupil in 2005," she said. "So if you look at it that way, he is essentially cutting schools back to the 2005 level, even though there are significantly more mandates on them ranging from the third-grade guarantee to the new provision regarding teaching specific historical documents."
She said that many school administrators feel misled.
"It doesn't make any sense," she said, calling his assertion about it being the philosophy that matters an "incredibly disingenuous response."
"I think what happens to the kids is what matters, and clearly there is a lot of work that needs to be done with this proposal if it's going to work at all," she said.
Athens Schools Supt. Carl Martin confirmed that his district is already down over $2 million from the last budget.
"Certainly on the surface it appears we'll be lucky to get the same amount of money this year that we got last year on the guarantee," he said. "We're pretty disappointed in the whole plan just from a financial standpoint given the fact the state has ($1.5) billion in the rainy-day fund and they're projecting close to another $1 billion over the next couple years."
He said that the state has done a good job of balancing its budget but they're doing it on the backs of school districts and local governments.
"I just don't quite understand why they can't come up with a way to give us some increased money, even if it's the money they took away from us," he said.
Alexander Local School Supt. Jeff Cullum said Friday that
he had been worried that his district would see more cuts. (An earlier version of this story misidentified Cullum as the Nelsonville-York superintendnent. - ed.)
"To be flat is better than being cut but obviously being flat-funded is like going backward because the cost of everything is going up," he said.
Damon Asbury, director of legislative services for the Ohio School Board Association, said Friday many around the state have been surprised.
"The governor talked about his desire to have money flow to districts that have lower capacity to raise revenues locally," he said. "In reality, that didn't seem to be the case when those spreadsheets were released."
He explained that districts on the state guarantee see no new money.
For these districts on the guarantee, Asbury said, increases or decreases in population, or increases or decreases in property value, have been masked because of the guarantee, which used to be based on enrollment but under Kasich's plan simply means the district will not receive any less money.
But this is unsettling for many districts because Kasich has said that he views the guarantee as inequitable and wants to phase it out entirely.
Federal Hocking's Wood took issue with how the proposed formula handles the guarantee.
"They had two years to work out a funding formula, and they came up with a formula that put 65 percent of the districts on a guarantee," Wood said. "That doesn't seem like very thoughtful work."
MEANWHILE, KASICH'S ASSISTANT POLICY director for education, Barbara Mattei-Smith, told the Dispatch Friday that since 2009 in rural areas "land values are increasing and taxation has updated agricultural values on property." She also said that many suburban districts that would receive more money under Kasich's plan have seen substantial increases in enrollment, which affects their funding under the new plan.
But local officials said they have not seen these increases in property values.
Phillips said that she does not believe that property values in Appalachia have been increasing.
Martin, meanwhile, said that property values in Athens have stayed relatively steady and have not been on the upswing.
Cullum, too, stated that property values in the Nelsonville district have not been increasing.
Wood also said that property values have not gone up in his district but have remained more or less the same.
"Property values are not increasing," he said. "Every time somebody asks the governor or his staff about these funding models, they've got a different excuse. This is silliness. They can't keep making up excuses."
Nevertheless, Wood said school officials are not panicking in Fed-Hock, and they are waiting to see what the state Legislature does with the proposal now that it will be in its hands.
Phillips expressed measured optimism that colleagues across the aisle in the House may also feel misled by what Kasich said his plan would do and what the actual figures show, leaving room for the majority party in the General Assembly to make changes before it goes through.
"I don't think they're going to rubber-stamp it," he said. "I think there are enough districts where the legislators are going to be hearing, 'What's this all about,' (from constituents)."
The governor's website states that every child deserves a high-quality education regardless of where they live, their circumstances or their own unique learning traits.
"It is essential for helping them get good jobs in the future, reach their God-given potential, and create the jobs-friendly climate that helps Ohio get back on track," it says. "Achievement Everywhere, which is part of Gov. John Kasich’s budget proposal, helps provide all schools with the resources they need so their students can succeed—regardless of where they live."