MONROE, Ohio – What a difference a month makes.
On November 8, over 60 percent of Ohio voters shot down SB 5, the law designed to save school budgets by limiting the collective bargaining privileges of school employee unions.
Like their Big Labor brethren, teacher unions rejoiced over SB 5’s demise. They knew that their expensive collective bargaining agreements – stuffed full of automatic pay raises, free or low cost health insurance, sick day payouts and retirement bonuses – were safe.
One month later, Ohio communities are beginning to see just what SB 5’s defeat means for their local public schools. With collective bargaining alive and well, school boards can no longer hope to control labor costs, which typically consume 75 percent of a district’s budget.
Instead, many school officials are left with only painful solutions to their districts’ budget woes: laying off young teachers, increasing class sizes, cutting academic programs, and raising pay-to-play fees on students who wish to participate in extracurricular activities.
In other words, Ohio’s families can soon expect to pay more in school taxes and fees, for less education. That’s the reality of Big Labor’s victory over SB 5.
The Wisconsin way
While Ohio voters were laying the smack down on SB 5, they were also rejecting most of their local school levies, many of which were designed to fill huge budget gaps. Some school officials blame those failed levies – not SB 5’s defeat – for their district’s financial woes and impending education cuts.
But does the levy argument hold water? We would argue that most schools have enough revenue to meet their responsibilities. The trick is to stop spending most of the money on runaway labor costs.
Earlier this year, Wisconsin did what Ohio could not: it changed its law to rein in collective bargaining privileges for public employees. That means school boards have the power to cut labor costs without union interference. As a result, many school districts in the Badger State are balancing their budgets without increasing taxes, shredding student programs or laying off teachers.
A recent survey of Wisconsin’s school superintendents reveals that while schools are still in financial trouble, the situation is not nearly as dire as it could be. That’s largely because school districts have used the new reforms to unilaterally cut costs by a reported $336 million, with no interference from local unions.
“There have been no widespread reductions in course offerings, and the number of students per teacher, librarian and counselor remained about the same,” reports Madison.com.
Struggling Wisconsin taxpayers are also winners, due to the revenue limitations imposed on school districts by the state’s reform package. December tax bills only increased by an average of 0.6 percent, far less than the average annual increase of 4.8 percent over the past 10 years.
That means Wisconsin’s schools are getting by with less state revenue, combined with their crucial new ability to control labor costs. The situation is not ideal – nothing associated with government will be fully funded during hard times – but most students are still receiving the same quality of instruction they received before the budget cuts.
The same cannot be said of Ohio’s schools, which will continue to be dominated by powerful, self-serving teacher unions. It’s clear that Ohio’s schools are courting financial disaster due to collective bargaining, and not from a lack of school levies.
Students bear the brunt of SB 5’s defeat
A case in point is Ohio’s Westerville City School District, which is facing a $23 million deficit. Last month, 61 percent of the voters defeated a property and income tax levy that would have generated $21.5 million a year, according to the Columbus Dispatch.
In response, the Westerville school board voted to eliminate 62 district jobs by year’s end, as well as cutting bus service for students who live within two miles of school. Superintendent Dan Good has proposed cutting several “gifted” programs and all extracurricular activities for students.
What won’t be cut are the automatic pay raises (typically around 4 percent), five-figure retirement bonuses, and generous health insurance benefits found in the teachers’ contract.
SB 5 would have empowered the Westerville district to negotiate a much more responsible contract when the current pact expires next year. Now, any future concessions will depend on the union’s goodwill toward students and taxpayers. Good luck with that one.
Union concessions will be even more unlikely in Monroe Local Schools, which reached a new three-year contract with its teachers union shortly after SB 5 became a “law in waiting” last spring. Under the new deal, Monroe Education Association members will receive automatic pay raises of 2.75 percent, down from the 5.25 percent raises in the previous contract. The deal will save the district $93,000 a year.
It’s now clear those savings aren’t nearly enough. Last month, the Monroe school board voted to cut $2.2 million for the upcoming school year. It appears some young teachers will be laid off and class offerings will be reduced. The district is also considering cutting transportation and increasing student pay-to-play fees.
Likewise, the Chagrin Falls school district is considering reinstating pay-to-play fees on student extracurricular activities, reducing bus service and increasing class sizes in an effort to trim $300,000 from its budget. The board will be asking voters to approve a 7.9-mill tax levy next spring.
“There is nothing that cannot be re-looked at, rethought and reduced,” Superintendent Bill Koons said according to Cleveland.com.
Twinsburg City school officials are also considering an increase in pay-to-play fees for student activities and making changes to its student transportation system. It’s all part of an overall strategy to cut $6 million from its budget.
Under threat of massive cuts to student academic and extracurricular programs – including the elimination some bus routes and all field trips – taxpayers in the Fairfield City School District very narrowly passed a 6.5-mill operating levy last month, 50.8 percent to 49.2 percent.
Taxpayer Arnold Engel said the district used the proposed cuts as “blackmail” to get the $9.2 million levy passed.
Ohio schools are ‘stuck in a holding pattern’
Greg R. Lawson, policy analyst at the Buckeye Institute, said the only way Ohio can solve its school budget crisis is by addressing the structural problem of union contracts.
“SB 5 wasn’t the end-all be-all, but without it Ohio is stuck in a holding pattern with an unsustainable status quo,” Lawson told EAG.
Lawson doesn’t expect lawmakers to tackle collective bargaining reform until the lame duck session in late 2012.
“Even then, I’ll be stunned if anything of substance happens,” he said.
Lawson said Ohio schools will continue to experience serious economic problems until voters connect that pain with the problem of collective bargaining for public employee unions.
He suspects the teacher unions are hoping to wear voters down before they make that connection.
“I believe unions are expecting voters to get tired of all the teachers getting cut. They expect voters to throw up their arms, give up and accept all the levies,” Lawson said.
Lawson believes reform is possible, but it will be “a very long term process.”