Is Repealing of SB 5 The Culprit for Ohio Schools’ Money Troubles?

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Six Months After SB 5 Repeal, Ohio Schools’ Financial Woes Affecting Classrooms

Cincinnati Public Schools have laid off 1,300 staff members over the past 10 years, due to steadily declining enrollment and persistent financial problems.

And the beat goes on.

Last month, the Cincinnati school board announced its teaching force will shrink by 237 educators, mostly through retirements and resignations, but also through 35 teacher layoffs. The district is facing a $43 million deficit for the coming school year, and will consider “additional program cuts to balance the budget,” reports Cincinnati.com.

Presumably, those cuts will affect academic and extracurricular activities for students.

School officials have not been shy in assigning blame for the budget mess, mostly on other people.

They have blamed the district’s money woes on state and federal officials for reductions in K-12 aid; county and city leaders, as well as the local energy company, for “balancing (their) budgets on CPS’ back”; higher than expected transportation costs; and voters who rejected the district’s most recent $52 million levy.

In the midst of all the finger pointing, school officials have failed to mention the single biggest culprit for the district’s money troubles: The repeal of Senate Bill 5.

Last November, Ohio voters struck down the law-in-waiting that would have placed strict limits on collective bargaining privileges for public employee unions, including teachers unions. That would have allowed school districts to rein in runaway labor costs, which typically consume around 75 percent of school budgets.

Big Labor took a victory lap after repealing SB 5, but six months later we’re learning the real price of that lost opportunity: Schools are being forced to cut staff and student programs, because they can’t free themselves from union-negotiated labor costs. And most unions are not offering to help by making financial concessions.

“School districts only had three options to begin with: Reform their cost structure, more taxes, or layoffs,” Greg R. Lawson, policy analyst at the Buckeye Institute, told EAGnews.

The death of SB 5 removed the only option that would have protected Ohio’s school children from painful cuts in the classroom, leaving the prospect of much higher taxes or numerous teacher layoffs and program cuts.

“We’re still on the same hamster wheel as we were before,” Lawson said.

A losing strategy: Don’t ask, don’t offer

In addition to the three options described by Lawson, district officials can always go to their local teachers union, hat in hand, to ask for voluntary contract concessions to help maintain quality programs for students.

That was an option that Cincinnati school officials chose not to explore.

Janet Walsh, director of public affairs for Cincinnati Public Schools, told EAGnews that the district did “not specifically” ask the union to surrender some of its contractual perks in order to save teaching jobs next year.

It certainly would have been worth a try.

A 2010 EAGnews analysis revealed that the district spends millions every year on nonessentials required by the union contract.

Here Are Three Prime Examples

Cincinnati spent over $3 million on automatic “step” raises for teachers during the 2010-11 school year. These raises – based on teachers’ years of service and level of college degree – are still part of Cincinnati’s teachers’ contract, and probably still cost the district millions every year.

CPS teachers are also given 15 sick days and three personal days a year, with the option of receiving an additional day for good attendance. Teachers who retire with copious amounts of unused leave time are allowed to cash it in at their final (and highest) rate of pay.

Such bonuses cost the district $4.6 million after the 2008-09 school year, and there’s every reason to believe these hefty bonus checks are still being handed out every spring.

CPS also “picks up” each teacher’s mandatory 10 percent contribution to the Ohio teachers retirement system, in addition to the district’s own 14 percent contribution. That means Cincinnati teachers are receiving free pensions at a very high cost to the school and taxpayers.

School districts could use these millions of dollars to retain teachers and preserve academic programs.

But Cincinnati school officials didn’t even ask the union for any givebacks, and the self-serving union certainly didn’t offer. Somehow both sides found it preferable to cut 237 teaching jobs.

It’s bad everywhere

The financial problems and curious spending priorities in Cincinnati are representative of what’s happening in many Ohio districts, six months after SB 5 was repealed.

The Cleveland Metropolitan School District, the largest in the Buckeye State, recently voted to lay off 500 teachers, reports State Impact Ohio. The Cleveland district is nearing insolvency, and is currently “mired in bureaucratic, outdated and cumbersome work rules” negotiated by the teachers union, according to Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson.

Interestingly, state lawmakers are considering special legislation that would largely free Cleveland schools from collective bargaining and save the district millions of dollars. In other words, SB 5-like reforms might be applied to pull the district out of its death spiral.

Other Ohio districts aren’t being offered that privilege. The Youngstown school board will soon decide how many teachers will be laid off in light of a pending $4 million cut in state aid.

The Lake Local school board recently voted to close an elementary school, reduce its kindergarten program, and lay off eight teachers and 17 other employees, reports ToledoBlade.com. Officials have threatened additional cuts, if voters don’t approve a new levy in August.

Likewise, Barberton City Schools have decided to cut 28 teachers, eight administrators and four hourly employees to compensate for the $4 million reduction in federal and state aid, reports Ohio.com.

Six months after the ban of SB 5, Ohio’s school budget crisis is just repeating itself, over in over, in district after district. Apart from appealing to the unions’ better angels, school officials are powerless to stop the financial hemorrhaging.

The conclusion is unmistakable: Ohio voters made a terrible mistake by killing SB 5. And students will begin feeling the effects when the new school year starts in the fall.