School funding overhaul moves on for full House vote

Children wearing protective face masks sit in a classroom. (Photo by Maja Hitij/Getty Images)

The Ohio House version of the public school funding overhaul in the works for three years was approved by the House Finance Committee and is headed for a full House vote, led by its former sponsor.

HB 305 had its 10th hearing in the finance committee on Wednesday, where the committee heard from several more school officials and members of educational service centers, all of whom supported the bill.

Included in the testimony was Michael Brennan, mayor of University Heights. Brennan appeared before the committee as members of the University Heights-Cleveland Heights school district prepare for a teachers strike that was set to start on Wednesday as week.

The teachers and the school board are at an impasse, Brennan said, about health care benefits and money, despite the second school levy passage in four years.

“Because even with the new school levy, one that passed by just 145 votes out of 29,987 cast, the first-year projection for our district shows the district running out of money at the end of year two,” Brennan said.

The district is also losing millions to the EdChoice private school voucher program, but Brennan said he has no problem with school choice, as long as it’s not funded to the detriment of public schools.

“Since it is our state’s policy to ensure that our families have choices, the state should fund these choices directly,” Brennan said, adding that HB 305 does that.

The new funding model seeks to address problems first found unconstitutional by the Ohio Supreme Court back in the 1990s, especially the current model’s reliance on property taxes for a majority of the funding.

That issue came up in other hearings relating to school funding. Two different legislators said they hoped funding changes would directly impact schools in their districts who lost the tangible personal property tax revenue the state began phasing out under former Gov. John Kasich’s administration.

State Rep. Bride Rose Sweeney, D-Cleveland, spoke specifically of Brooklyn, Ohio, in her testimony before the House Primary and Secondary Education Committee on Wednesday, promoting House Bill 504.

Brooklyn has a significant amount of businesses in the area, putting the pressure on a smaller amount of residents to pay the school district taxes. In previous attempts to create the parity in state funding for these districts and chartered nonpublic schools, both Kasich and Gov. Mike DeWine vetoed the measures, saying the parity would benefit wealthy districts more than any others.

“The only reason that we’ve been told that this parity shouldn’t happen is because these districts don’t need it, but Brooklyn does,” Sweeney said.

Sweeney mentioned the school funding overhaul currently in the House, and said Brooklyn’s school district would get a significant increase under the bill. But, she said, until the six-year implementation of that bill becomes reality, desperate districts need more.

“I think this is a poster-child of why we need a funding formula, because it doesn’t make sense,” Sweeney said.

State Sen. Cecil Thomas, D-Avondale, made the same argument on behalf of schools in his constituency in a primary and secondary education subcommittee of the Senate Finance Committee. Thomas said the tangible personal property tax phase-out has had a major impact on the St. Bernard-Elmwood Place School District and Warrensville Heights schools as well.

Thomas said 82% of the St. Bernard-Elmwood Place district are eligible for free or reduced lunch, and 2016 census data shows 30% of Elmwood Place resident living below the poverty level.

“The district has a large business percentage so there are few residents and homeowners across whom to spread the levy burden, many of whom are already economically disadvantaged,” Thomas told the subcommittee.

The district is also under a cap for state education aid put in place with the current funding model.

His sponsored bill, Senate Bill 224, would lift the cap for fiscal year 2020-2021, which could bring the St. Bernard-Elmwood Place and Warrensville Heights districts more than $450,000 each.

The Senate is looking at a school funding overhaul that mirrors the House’s version, but that bill has not left committee.

The House bill has a good chance in a floor vote, considering Speaker Bob Cupp was one of the original authors of the bill. No timeline has been given for the vote, but a House session is schedule for Thursday, and more are scheduled for next week.

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