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Follow The Money: Columbus City Schools Levy

All this week, in a series of reports, WOSU is taking a critical look at arguments for and against the Columbus School levy voters will decide in November. City and district leaders say they additional money is essential to fix the failing district. But critics say money is not the answer. So we followed the money and looked at how Columbus is spending tax dollars. Columbus City School leaders and city officials say the 9 mill levy will improve the district’s school failing report cards, expand pre-kindergarten and prepare high school students for adulthood. If approved, the levy is expected to generate $76 million a year. That’s a lot of money. But compared to what the district already spends, it’s a drop in the bucket. The most up-to-date state education department data show the district spent nearly $700 million during the 2011 school year. With the district already spending hundreds of millions of dollars in the classroom each year and continuing to produce “Dâ€? and “Fâ€? rated schools, we asked City Council president Andrew Ginther how an extra $76 million a year – a ten percent increase  - will transform the failing schools system.

“We felt like we are in such a sensitive place in our history as a community and certainly as a school district with the loss of faith and confidence that the public has in the school district right now. We couldn’t afford to do this a third of the way or two-thirds of the way," Ginther said.

Right now nearly 70 percent of Columbus City Schools’ expenditures are allocated for classroom instruction. That works out to about $7,200 per student. So how does that compare to what districts are spending? As it studied the Columbus City Schools, the mayor’s education commission often pointed to Reynoldsburg as a model district. Reynoldsburg spends significantly less per pupil than Columbus, about $5,600 a student. Reynoldsburg did better than Columbus on its state report cards.  Most Reynoldsburg schools received B’s. When you compare Columbus with other large urban districts – they are about even.  Columbus, Cincinnati and Cleveland all spend about $7,000 a student. Most each of those districts’ schools scored “Dsâ€? on the state report cards. Critics disagree. Levy opponent Jonathan Beard says the money the levy is projected to produce is an “obsceneâ€? amount for such a troubled district.

“To push this now and to ask the people to vote for more money for a failing, unrepentant school district is not the leadership we need in Columbus.â€?

Beard says Columbus should reform the district first, and they asked for higher taxes. The school district promises to cut spending by $200 million over five years. It promises a reduction in some salaries and positions. We looked to see just how many administrators Columbus City Schools has. According to state data, about 3 percent of professional staff in the district hold a managerial position. Reynoldsburg and Cincinnati have similar numbers. But in Cleveland, where there was a mayoral takeover, nearly 8 percent of professional staff are administrators. This summer, Columbus interim superintendent Dan Good said he would cut as many as eight upper-management positions to save the district more than $1 million a year. Good also is moving administrators out of the central office and into schools; and he’s giving schools more independence to meet the needs of their students, including more say in which teachers are hired. But attracting highly-qualified teachers could be difficult.  Compared to other Central Ohio districts, Columbus teachers’ salaries lag behind by as much as $15,000. And at a time when the district is expected to slash some salaries, Good says teachers could get raises. “It’s certainly a possibility with the operating portion of the levy, of the 3.01 mills you mentioned before. We want to make certain that we attract the brightest and the best on the front end, and then training them and retaining them.â€? Recruiting and keeping good teachers, levy proponents say is a key meeting their goal of all “Aâ€? and “Bâ€? schools by 2020.