Issue 107: Proposed Cleveland Municipal School Tax Levy
Issue 107 (“tax levy”) requests that a majority of Cleveland voters approve a 15 mill property tax for current operations, with one mill going to partner (e.g. charter) schools. The funds would be used to implement the Cleveland Plan, an attempt to transform the Cleveland Municipal School District (CMSD) and selected charter schools. Mayor Frank Jackson, with support from Governor Kasich and legislators to get the needed changes in state law passed, led the various groups of stakeholders in creating the plan, which puts the needs of the school children first and will help ensure that the city of Cleveland remains competitive by vastly improving the number of quality schools, while eliminating poor quality schools more quickly than in the past. As many of the bloggers who oppose the levy note, the Ohio Supreme Court has found that the way Ohio funds public schools via property taxes is unconstitutional, though the Ohio legislature has not addressed the issue.
Upon hearing the size (15) of the millage, City Councilman Mike Polensek said, “I hope they dispense Depends when they announce it, so that when homeowners crap their pants it doesn’t get too messy.” Proponents of Issue 107 argue that the tax rate for Cleveland schools is less than that of thirty other cities in the region. (The top thirteen cities’ residents pay over 5% (of median Adjusted Gross Income within the district) for schools, whereas Cleveland residents currently pay 2.18%.) City Councilman Joe Cimperman is in favor of Issue 107, since it has been sixteen years since voters passed a school operational levy. Also, children are our future, and they need our help. Businesses, labor, and church groups also support Issue 107. Councilman Zack said the levy is “going to go down utter defeat.” Instead of supporting legislative changes, Councilman Reed suggests that Governor Kasich send money to the Cleveland Municipal school system. Both Polensek and Reed said that many of their constituents cannot afford the tax, not that they are opposed to education or helping children. The tax would cost a homeowner $230 per year (for four years) per $50,000 worth of home value. The Plain Dealer published a chart detailing the cost for an average-value home in various Cleveland neighborhoods. The high millage is needed, in part, to compensate for the fact that the average house in Cleveland is worth far less that the average house in other cities in the region. Even the disparity in home values between the West side and East side of Cleveland leads many people to believe that there will be less support for the tax levy among West side homeowners. (Except for CMSD CEO Eric Gordon, who lives on the West side.)
Gordon states the District’s case in support of the tax levy during a 17 minute video, one of many resources related to Issue 107 created or compiled by WKYC. WKYC’s “goal is to encourage community involvement by providing in-depth information so voters can make an informed decision.” The additional money would help CMSD recover from chronic budgetary problems, and prevent 800 additional layoffs. Gordon says that proof that his teachers are committed to educating students lies in the fact that 25% of them could retire with full benefits today. Teachers, however, rejected concessions that would have reduced a $19 million budgetary shortfall to $6 million. One teacher’s response states that the concessions are equivalent to a 6 percent pay cut, on top of other, previously-agreed upon concessions.
Critics of the levy, such as Kimberly Brown, argue that the district already spends over $15,000 per student, and that there are too many administrators in the system. Additionally, some believe that there is too much flexibility on how the additional money would be spent. CMSD received the “Academic Watch” designation in 2011, down from “Continuous Improvement” in 2010. Further deterioration in CMSD’s designation could lead to a state takeover of the school system. State Senator Shirley A. Smith says that, as early as January, Ohio will appoint a five-member Academic Distress Commission to help CMSD improve its performance, which likely will complicate efforts to implement the Cleveland Plan. Proponents of Issue 107 say that is speculative, and that they are doing what they need to do to fix the schools, while addressing concerns raised by the state auditor. (For example, the auditor required paper records, while CMSD was maintaining electronic records.) Gordon said that the academic watch designation shows why Issue 107 is necessary, to provide additional resources and implement the Cleveland Plan. The one mill allocated for cooperating partner (charter) schools seems to be a positive sign, given previous tensions between public schools and charter schools. Some critics, however, argue that the charter schools can pick and choose (and get rid of, if necessary) the best students.