Let’s restore the levy accountability commission
(Plain Press, June 2006) In recent months the Cleveland Board of Education has looked into bringing back the Bond Accountability Commission promised Cleveland voters when they passed Issue 14 in 2001 to provide funds to match state dollars for a massive school rebuilding program. While it is good that the Board of Education is working to restore the Bond Accountability Commission, the restoration of another committee promised voters would have a far greater impact on the education of Cleveland’s public school students.
The Levy Accountability Commission was part of the promise to voters in 1996 when they passed Issue 31, the last operating levy to pass in Cleveland. The 13.5-mill operating levy promised to improve education in Cleveland by using the $67 million per year, generated by the levy, on very specific programs. A widely-circulated document projected how money generated by the levy would be spent in the first 18 months.
Among the promises made were:
- reinstating and expanding all day, every day kindergarten
- adding more textbooks and supplies
- training “proficiency” teachers, training literacy teachers, and training parents to be “proficiency” parents
- reinstating/expanding extracurricular activities
- implementing Community Model schools
- adding foreign language teachers
- adding professionally trained security officers and attendance liaisons
- incorporating conflict mediation programs
- operating alternative schools for students, and
- renovating and replacing roofs on schools and facilities.
The Levy Accountability Commission, headed by Chairman David Abbot, held the Cleveland Public School District accountable for the first four years of the levy. A report issued at the end of the first four years summarized the expenditures. At that time taxpayers were getting what they paid for, and the school district was showing dramatic improvement as a result.
Over the first four years of the levy, the Cleveland Municipal School District Report “ We Promised, We Delivered states that $234 million was received and spent on 13 categories of expenditures promised voters. Full Day Kindergarten received $27 million; Textbooks received $30 million; Teacher Training- Proficiency Development received $8 million; Teacher Training – Literacy- $8 million; Parent training - $1 million; Extracurricular Activities - $9 million; Community Model Schools - $10 million; Foreign Languages - $3 million; Increased Security - $2 million; Student Conflict Mediation - $1 million; Attendance Liaisons - $2 million; Alternative/Option Schools - $7 million; and building and roof repairs - $28 million. In addition to those 13 categories, the report indicated that $103 million of the money raised by the levy had been used to enhance the district’s existing programs and to restructure the district’s $152 million debt.
After the report “We Promised, We Delivered” was issued in 2001, the Levy Accountability Commission quietly dissolved. With it went the promise made to voters to spend the money on making a qualitative difference in educational programs. Attention turned to Issue 14 and the Bond Accountability Commission. The district began to use the money from the operating levy to give annual 3% pay raises to all staff for four years in a row. Then-treasurer Ebert Johnson talked about the pay raises as “natural increases” in the budget, as if they were pre-ordained by God.
While pay raises for staff are important, they should not come from money promised to voters for specific purposes. If the district had instead used the money as intended by voters, imagine all the disruption and distress we could have avoided over the past four years.
Students would have books they can take home so parents would have reference material to help them with their homework. Last year the book budget for the entire district was zero. Next year the district proposes to spend $675,000 on textbooks. This is a substantial reduction from the $7.5 million a year pace over the first four years of the levy.
The district’s extracurricular activities would have a solid funding base rather than relying on donations for scaled-back extracurricular activities.
The district would have established alternative schools to send students who don’t function well in a conventional school, and would have an alternative program in place to send disruptive students. Recently much of the structure for placing these students in alternative schools was destroyed and then brought back on a reduced scale.
If the district had continued funding of attendance liaisons, perhaps it would not have had the attendance controversy where the district used deceptive figures to bolster its attendance.
Perhaps, too, the recent reports of increasing violence in the district would not be occurring if the promised funding of district’s award-winning, nationally- recognized mediation program had not been drastically reduced to a mere $100,000 a year over the last three years.
At a recent district budget hearing at Lincoln West High School, Anthony D. Masevice, Director of Financial Plans and Forecasts for the Cleveland Municipal School District, said that the district only made commitments for the first 18 months of the levy. He said he has a document to prove it. Masevice said the four years of adhering to the budget proposed at the time of the levy gave voters more than they were promised.
Masevice is simply wrong. The document he referred to was a projection for the first 18 months. Nobody would have voted for a $67 million a year levy if they believed the money would be spent as they wished for only 18 months. Levies are long term. We are still paying money for that levy from our property taxes each year.
Masevice rightly points out that the district’s general revenue has declined dramatically since the 1996 passage of the operating levy. In the near future, the system will face another significant loss due to State passage of HB 66, which eliminates tangible personal property taxes for businesses (about $20 million a year hit for the school district according to Masevice). However, Masevice fails to note that the levy provided $103 million over its first four years for current programs and debt reduction.
Masevice says the district has also lost considerable funding due to loss of students to charter schools, demographic changes and movement out of the district. When the Levy Accountability Commission made its report in 2001, it spoke of voters approving a levy in 1996 to meet the needs of the district’s 77,000 students. Currently the district has only 59,000 students. Most of that population loss has occurred in the last couple of years. The way to stem the tide students leaving the district is to improve educational quality. The way to establish credibility is to restore funding to categories promised voters in 1996. If funding cannot be restored in the exact amounts it should at least be restored in amounts proportional to the current amount of students.
The district needs to seek other means to find funds for the raises it has given its staff. One source would be to work to end the City of Cleveland’s Tax Abatement Program. A October 3, 2004 Plain Dealer chart accompanying an article by Ebony Reed, “ Tax burden should be shared, Clevelanders tell schools “, estimates a $17 million yearly loss to schools in Cleveland due to tax abatement.
The program was just extended another year to allow 15-year tax abatements to new buildings proposed for a large development in the Flats. The district stands to lose taxes on properties purchased and demolished for the project, and will not receive any taxes on the new development for 15 years.
Other similar projects are proposed throughout the city, yet the Cleveland School Board does not protest. In addition, the School Board has yet to come forth to support County Treasurer Jim Rokakis’s ground-breaking proposal to have large so-called non-profit hospitals such as Cleveland Clinic and University Hospitals give a donation equivalent to a portion of what they would owe if their tax-exempt properties were required to pay property tax.
Board members at the budget meeting raised several good ideas that could help them to get a better grip on the budget and start finding the dollars needed for these important programs. At one point Board member Rashidah Adbulhaqq noted that it would be better if those attending the budget hearing had a budget with detailed descriptions by object, rather than the more general draft of the proposed general fund budget for fiscal year 2007. She also noted that having the general fund budget by itself was also incomplete. The document does not include various federal supplementary funds and grants that often result in nearly doubling the funds available.
Board member Louise Dempsey said she would like to see a return of the reports on the 1996 Levy. She also said it was a shame the district’s award-winning mediation program received so little funding. She said, “We should write grants for it.”
While the sentiment of the board is good, the board needs to act. The board did not ask for additional documents to be made available at future budget meetings. It only made reference to what it thought would be better. The only person at the sparsely- attended meeting to ask for documents was activist and audience member Gene Tracy who requested a copy of the district’s latest attendance figures and a copy of the names, salaries and titles of all members of the central administration staff.
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