Ever since the State Supreme Court ruled that Ohio's reliance on property taxes to fund public schools was unconstitutional, lawmakers have struggled to devise a substitute system. Some observers connect this financial dilemma to the legacy of a law created by George Voinovich, back in the mid-1970s. 90.3's David C. Barnett reports that, depending on who you talk to, House Bill 920 is one of the greatest - or the worst - things that ever happened to school funding in Ohio.
Jan Resseger- We literally have a frozen revenue stream. I've worked on 10 or 11 levy campaigns since 1987...
James Trakas- The reality is that the public wants schools to come to them to justify their existence.
David C. Barnett- The Cleveland Heights-University Heights School district has been in an uproar in recent years over school funding. School levies have been put on the ballot and the voters have turned them down. That is, until this past spring, when an emergency levy was approved in the wake of a threat to cut the district's school busing services. School Board president Barbara Hodgkiss says that her system's financial woes can be traced back to a 24-year-old piece of legislation.
Barbara Hodgkiss- The way that schools are funded in Ohio is that any increase in our costs must be covered by an increase in property tax. Because of House Bill 920, our revenues remain flat.
DCB- Ohio House Bill 920 was shepherded through the state legislature in 1976 by then-Cuyahoga County Auditor George Voinovich. Columbus-based public spending analyst Don Burno says Voinovich was trying to trying to protect property owners who were being bled by tax spikes.
Don Burno- The basic concept of property taxes is the voted tax rate times the house's value. And if your house value goes up then you're going to get a tax increase. And when you had high inflation in the mid-70s - that was not a pretty picture for elected officials across the country.
DCB- The Voinovich-backed House Bill 920 was born of the same anti-tax sentiments that fueled California's Proposition 13 of that same era. 920 effectively froze the tax that could be collected on a given piece of property. Cleveland Heights/University Heights Superintendent Paul Masem says it also had other effects.
Paul Masem- I'm sure his initial intentions were very good and that was that property owners would not become poor as a result of hyper-inflation. So, what they did was swing the pendulum completely the other way and they put a cap on the value of millage that you voted on for school taxes. The effect of that is, if a piece of property was worth $1,000 in 1900, you'd still only collect the money on what that property was in the past. So, when we pass a levy now, it's based on only those mils on the current value of the property.
DCB- Cleveland Heights resident Jan Resseger is a long-time education activist who notes that industrial cities, and younger communities with room to grow, can compensate for the money they don't get from property taxes.
JR- For a district like Cleveland Heights, which is older and largely residential, with almost no commercial or industrial tax base - and we are fully developed, which means there's no room for new construction - and so, we have to come back for levies far more often than the districts along the freeway, like Beachwood and Mayfield. Or districts like Solon, that have a lot of industrial property. Or districts, obviously, like Cuyahoga Heights and Independence. And so, we're on the ballot far more often than we'd like to be.
DCB- Cuyahoga County Republican party chair James Trakas has little sympathy for those who have called for changing, or even repealing, House Bill 920.
JT- Consistently, public opinion shows the public likes 920. By an 80%-to-20% margin people would reject such a change.
DCB- Trakas represents District 15 in the Ohio House and he says he's got all the property owners on his side. He adds that he's tired of people throwing money at educational problems.
JT- You have to remember that HB920 passed during a time of double-digit inflation, and senior citizens were hit hard by this. I understand the concern of education officials, but when you look at the money spent since the 1970s on schools, we have the same basic level of education. The money spent hasn't correlated to a better quality of education.
DCB- Cleveland Heights activist (Jan Resseger) says any talk repealing of House Bill 920 is probably pointless because it has been embedded in the Ohio constitution and, as such, would be very difficult to change. She worries that her district will continue to get shortchanged, while neighboring communities will weather such financial shortfalls.
JR- One problem for a district like Cleveland Heights/University Heights is that it is a relatively poor neighbor in an extraordinarily rich neighborhood. All of the wealthiest districts in the state, that set the highest competition for teachers salaries and everything else are right around us here on the eastern half of Cuyahoga County. It puts us in a very expensive marketplace to do business.
DCB- This week, James Trakas and his colleagues in the General Assembly are back in Columbus, ready to take another crack at changing the way that Ohio funds it's schools. Educators in communities like Cleveland Heights are wondering how long they can wait. In Cleveland, David C. Barnett, 90.3 WCPN, 90.3 FM.