Last November, a proposed levy failed to pass, leading Talawanda School District (TSD) to announce a series of budget cuts that are meant to make up a $5.4 million deficit over the next four years.
There have been discussions about cutting extracurriculars like art and music, making sports pay-to-play, grade-banding and only providing busing to elementary and middle school students who live more than two miles away from their assigned school.
In light of these developments, the question remains: how did Talawanda end up in this situation?
The state funding formula
While the current problems TSD is facing have risen to public attention this year, it has been dealing with another problem for the past two decades — the state funding formula.
The funding formula that the state uses was originally deemed unconstitutional by the Ohio State Supreme Court in 1997 for relying too much on property taxes. Two and a half decades later, property taxes are still a large part of school funding.
Holli Hansel, director of communications for TSD, said the district is on a state guarantee that provides $2,500 per student but relies on local taxes to raise the rest of the money. Statewide, the average state funding per student is more than $11,000.
“Local taxpayers are providing the lion’s share of expenses … Funding is coming in, but this is a very complicated formula,” Hansel said.
Miami University poses a unique problem with this reliance on local taxpayers.
Because the university is a state institution that doesn’t have to pay taxes, any revenue for TSD that could be generated from property owned by Miami is nonexistent.
In an email to The Miami Student, Kathleen Knight-Abowitz, a member of Talawanda’s Board of Education (BOE), wrote that this inflates Talawanda’s wealth while decreasing tax revenue.
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“Because of lots of factors, our district's citizens shoulder a lot of the tax revenue compared to citizens of other school districts,” Knight-Abowitz wrote. “We are considered a wealthy district by the state but also cannot collect tax revenue on any [Miami] property, so that's a lot of property that we are unable to levy taxes on.”
According to Hansel, another factor that has affected TSD under the state funding formula is its district land mass rank. TSD is ranked 61st out of 615 Ohio districts in terms of land mass, 136.78 square miles, but a majority of the included land total is farmland within the district. Hansel explained that this means the district is expected to get more funding from taxes under the formula than it does in reality.
“In Ohio, valuable land is used as an indicator of wealth, however the land itself doesn't necessarily generate income to demonstrate that and the owners of that land may not be wealthy,” Hansel wrote in an email to The Miami Student. “We have a little town, with a major state university, surrounded by a [rural] area.”
Reductions in state support
Over the past 10 years, public schools have faced decreased state funding as the legislature made changes to allocate more funding to private and charter schools.
Rebecca Howard, vice president of Talawanda’s BOE, said state funding for TSD has either stagnated or decreased since the early 2010s.
“Up until 2012, there was a significant amount of funding support from the state… we were building a surplus,” Howard said. “Some decisions by Talawanda, like removing pay-to-play, were made at a time when funding was fairly robust. As time has gone on, funding in all areas from the state has either pulled back or remained flat.”
The Fair School Funding plan in 2021 sought to remedy the problems with funding public education by giving additional funding to schools with high poverty rates and numbers of minority students, but TSD does not meet either qualifying metric.
Carla Blackmar-Rice, a mother of two TSD students, has looked deeply into TSD’s funding issues and said the plan would be too slow to work, even if Talawanda did qualify.
"Even if we were to benefit, the problem is that Ohio is phasing in the plan over six years and doing nothing to speed up the process,” Blackmar-Rice said.
Blackmar-Rice believes the decisions by the Ohio legislature reflect a larger trend of defunding education nationwide.
“Ohio is part of a nationwide movement to erode education by providing vouchers and supporting private schools and homeschools, which is linked to corruption from people who stand to make a profit from privatization of schools,” Blackmar-Rice said. “Since public
education is the cornerstone of our democracy, this cycle of divestment makes you wonder how [the Ohio legislature] feels about democracy if they’re allocating funds to pay for things like private and religious education.”
House bill 920, which passed in 1976, dictates that any funding from a levy must remain at a fixed rate regardless of inflation. This legislation, meant to help taxpayers, means the money collected from TSD’s 2004 levy remained fixed despite rising inflation rates in the following years.
“Inflation is going up, but the money we are collecting right now is staying the same,” Hansel said. “There was no way to increase revenue other than to put an operating levy on the ballot and let taxpayers vote on that.”
Hansel added that proposing a levy during a time of inflation made it a harder sell than it would otherwise be.
“Individual households and families are also experiencing difficulties with food and gas prices,” Hansel said. “It makes it a really difficult decision for people — especially people who are just ‘making it’ — to vote to increase their taxes because costs are already going up [for them].”
Blackmar-Rice said that while it’s always hard to communicate the benefits of tax policy, TSD could have more effectively outlined the issues at hand.
“The history of our area would suggest that in 2004, it [had taken TSD] 10-20 years to pass the last levy, so I think they could have had a more organized communications campaign,” Blackmar-Rice said. “In order to pass a levy you need to run a very sophisticated campaign, and that takes people and financing.”
Howard said that during this time of uncertainty it’s best to take action through actively educating oneself about Talawanda’s budget issues.
“I appreciate the people who are trying to get actual facts and not speculating, and I encourage people who have questions to contact board members and find out who can answer these questions,” Howard said. “Everyone is making decisions with the best information we have.”