Fair Funding for Oberlin Schools
The problems facing our schools across the country are grave, but this Tuesday Oberlin voters will have the opportunity to take a step down the long path toward reform by voting for Issues 21 and 22. Together, the passage of these two tax levies will provide Oberlin City schools with the resources they need, bring promising new programs to the schools and make taxation more fair.
In part thanks to Ohio law and in part because of Oberlin’s own unique circumstances, the City school district faces serious funding challenges. Currently, most of the funding for the Oberlin school district comes from property. Unlike in many other states, in Ohio, property taxes do not bring in extra revenue as the value of a property increases.
This a result of a piece of legislation, “House Bill 920,” passed by the Ohio legislature in 1976. The consequence of this law is, as the Legislative Budget Office explains, “The effective tax rate continuously falls.” While the real tax rate falls continuously, the school system’s budget is continuously eaten away by inflation as the prices from everything from the cost of diesel fuel for school buses to office supplies rises over time. Just to stay above the water, let alone make any new investments, the school district must constantly bring new tax levies to the voters.
Whatever the intentions of the authors of HB 920 may have been, it has succeeded in making financing public education unusually difficult. In Oberlin, these difficulties are compounded by the fact that large portions of the City are occupied by tax-exempt properties, such as the Federal Aviation Administration installation on East Lorain Street, Allen Hospital and Oberlin College. While these institutions have a lot to offer the City, the presence of so much tax free property does not make paying for public education any easier and means that the bill is footed largely by homeowners, whereas in other cities commercial properties often provide a much larger share of the school system’s funding.
This reliance on property taxes paid by homeowners creates a very regressive system for funding city schools. Incomes vary widely in Oberlin; some professionals (who may happen to work at some of Oberlin’s tax-exempt properties) earn very good livings, while others have a much harder time getting by. However, property is taxed at a flat rate, and the tax variation between the most and least expensive pieces of real estate does not reflect the range of incomes. Consequently, residents with lower incomes often wind up paying a larger portion of their earnings in property tax than those who make significantly more.
Issue 22 will ameliorate this social injustice by increasing Oberlin’s income tax and reducing its property tax. OC students need to be heard from on this issue, as it impacts us directly. This proposal includes a three quarters percent income tax increase. While this will result in student workers paying a few more cents an hour in school income tax, this has to be weighed against the benefits. Issue 22 will cut unfair property tax rates while still raising additional money for the schools. As the Oberlin News-Tribune wrote in its editorial in favor of Issue 22, by “shifting school funding to an income-based system, the tax system becomes less regressive. Those who are more able to pay will contribute more, while those who are less fortunate will contribute less.”
Of course, taxing fairly is important, but so is spending wisely. The Issue 21 replacement levy, which sustains a previously existing technology levy, will replace old computers and furnish the schools other new equipment. Issue 22 will, among other things, bring the esteemed International Baccalaureate (IB) program to Oberlin schools for all K-10 students, and those electing it in grades 11-12. The widely recognized International Baccalaureate college preparation program will ready students for higher education, allow them to do more advanced coursework and let them earn college credit while in school. In addition to IB, Issue 22 will help support a Universal Design for Learning initiative that will bring the flexible, widely-used UDL curriculum to reach out to students with different learning styles and needs. The passage of Issue 22 and the establishment of an IB program and UDL will bring a world class education to Oberlin schools and provide needed help to struggling students.
With these ballot issues we have an opportunity to alleviate some serious inequities in our tax system and improve the quality of public education. This is an opportunity we should not squander, so please remember to vote on November 6th.