Image of a man in a hoodie helping direct traffic on a winter morning
Gym teacher Brett Rogers and special education aid Jessica Wauckman direct traffic during morning arrivals at Crestwood Primary and Intermediate Schools. Kelly Krabill/The Portager

Educational inequality: Portage County schools got help from the state, but it might not last

This report was created in partnership with the Collaborative NewsLab at Kent State University. Click here to support investigative reporting at The Portager.

Gym teacher Brett Rogers walked out of Crestwood Primary School with a speaker blaring music loud enough for students to hear while they sat in a two-lane drop-off. He propelled his arms like an aircraft marshaller down the center, cars on each side, and repeated “good morning” as elementary-aged children piled out, backpacks on, and headed together as a group into the building.

“We’re assigned our duty for this,” he said. “And we have other duties throughout the day, too.” 

Rogers is one of 84 educators in the Crestwood Local School District who have extra responsibilities on top of classroom roles, such as recess and lunch duty. 

Just west of Crestwood in the affluent city of Aurora, its district has 11 part-time monitors who perform those jobs. 

Crestwood Local School District, which serves Mantua, Shalersville and part of Hiram, is small, said Superintendent David Toth, and that is a big reason for staff to double up on daily tasks. But about 10 district jobs, such as a curriculum director, have been eliminated over the last nine years because of funding problems.

“We were just on the ballot two years ago, and it failed,” Toth said of the latest levy. “The last one they passed for new money was 2012, and then before that it failed a bunch of times.”

School districts in Ohio that have difficulty passing levies or don’t have a strong commercial and residential tax base traditionally have less money to give students an equitable education. So, the choices of available electives may be slim, or the prospect of joining a swim team — a sport Crestwood had to cut because the district could no longer afford it — might not exist.   

But as of last year, K-12 students in Ohio may experience some temporary relief from education inequality.

The state legislature approved a new funding formula July 1, 2021, for two years — 2021 through 2023 — called the Fair School Funding Plan. It’s designed to give more state money to poorer districts and less to wealthier ones, where high local property values flood districts with revenue.

The plan could help close the widening educational gulf between Portage County’s rich and poor districts.

At Ravenna and Windham, every student qualifies as economically disadvantaged, according to the Ohio Department of Education. At Waterloo, within the last 10 years, administrators have cut choir for all grade levels, middle school art, high school shop and French classes — all because there isn’t enough money in the district. 

Meanwhile, just 30 minutes away, Kent City School District has two orchestras, choirs for each grade level and extracurricular choirs — and they still have their swimming program.

Decades of inconsistency 

In 1991, a group called Ohio Coalition for Equity and Advocacy of School Funding interviewed students from Sheridan High School, about 40 miles east of Columbus, to find out what concerns they had about their education. Freshman Nathan DeRolph said there were trash cans catching water leaking from the ceiling in the computer lab.

School funding was being distributed unfairly.

The coalition argued that it leaned too much on local property taxes. And the additional state aid schools received didn’t consider equality. Instead, the Ohio legislature simply picked a number: $2,636 per student, said Howard Fleeter, an economist and research consultant for the Ohio Education Policy Institute.

As a result, districts with higher valued homes got more money. Their residents could afford to pass levies. Poorer districts got less money and rejected tax levies. The inequality compounded over time. And ultimately, issues like the computer lab’s ceiling leaking water didn’t get fixed.

Under the Ohio Constitution, Article 6 Section 2 reads that it’s the “state’s responsibility to provide a thorough and efficient [system] of common schools,” Fleeter said. That guarantee served as the basis for a lawsuit.

The coalition, representing more than 500 Ohio school districts, filed a complaint in the Perry County Court in 1991 that ultimately led to a case with the Ohio Supreme Court five years later, DeRolph v. the State of Ohio. In 1997, the court sided with DeRolph and declared the school funding system unconstitutional. 

As a result of the ruling, the state hired a school funding expert to create a new formula for figuring out the base cost of educating a typical student. 

This didn’t fix the problem, and the coalition came back to the court several times. The Supreme Court approved more changes in 2000, two in 2001 and another in 2002.

The state maintained the new formula until John Kasich became governor in 2011 during the Great Recession. The funding model was tossed out during the effort to fix massive budget problems.

“Then (for) two years they didn’t have a formula,” Fleeter said. “And then starting in 2014 they went back to the way they were doing it before the DeRolph decision where they just picked a number.” 

These decisions in Columbus have had powerful effects throughout Ohio and in Portage County.

Students really get “a different type of education and experience” living in a wealthy district where the home values are higher than students who live in a poorer district, Toth said. For example, Aurora has 23 advanced placement courses for high school students to choose from, Crestwood has six and Waterloo has none.

How the new model works

Under the new Fair School Funding Plan, the state will now consider property values and income levels to determine funding, with additional money going to poorer districts.

To illustrate how different home values and tax rates can affect the amount of money schools receive, let’s compare the Aurora school district (comprising the wealthiest city in Portage County) to the Rootstown school district (which has a smaller tax base). 

In Aurora, the average home value is $357,886, according to Zillow. The owner of such a home would pay $6,417 in taxes each year, and 75% of that goes to the school district.

In Rootstown, the average home value is $178,000. Taxes are lower in Rootstown, so the property tax is $2,786 annually, and only 61% of it goes to the schools. 

The result of this disparity: Aurora receives $11,889 in local property tax per student and Rootstown receives $7,110, according to the Ohio Department of Education Cupp Report

Failed levies in Portage County haven’t helped with the inequality problem.

There are two types of levies. Operating levies support the operation of the district, and bond levies pay for construction and maintenance of schools. Districts can’t use the money interchangeably. So, if a ceiling needs to be fixed, like at Sheridan High School in 1991, the district couldn’t use operating money to fix it. (The state’s new funding formula only pays for operating expenses.) 

It’s also worth noting that commercial businesses are included under real estate taxes. 

Take the City of Kent as an example — the school district received more than $24.8 million in local commercial real estate taxes in 2021 in addition to home property taxes of more than $2 million, said George Joseph, the superintendent of the Kent City School District. Crestwood, which has less commercial real estate, received almost $7 million in total property taxes that year, or about a quarter of Kent’s local tax revenue. 

The Ravenna school district offers an example of how the state is now helping by distributing money based on need. Commercial and residential property taxes accounted for more than $10.3 million of the district’s 2021 fiscal year budget; Ohio funded an additional $16 million.

“Our local property taxes from real estate and public utilities are just a little bit less than what our state is providing us in state grants and aid,” said Candi Lukat, the treasurer for the Ravenna City School District. “So we’re not quite a 50/50 split with local and state, we’re a little bit more state funded.”

That state aid keeps taxes lower for homeowners. For that reason, moving to a new school district can dramatically affect what someone pays.

Jennifer Walton-Fisette, the director of educator preparation at Kent State, moved from Ravenna to Kent four years ago, and her taxes doubled. 

“The taxes are not just going to the school districts, but obviously more per student is going to go to each child in Kent versus in Ravenna,” Walton-Fisette said. Such inequalities, she added “should not be happening solely due to money. There should be federal, and there should be more state support.”

New money for enrolled students

Another feature of the new funding formula is that it provides money to districts based on their actual cost to educate a student from kindergarten through graduation. In the past, the state assigned the same “base cost per pupil” to every student in Ohio, which recently was pegged at $6,020 per year.

“It used to be that everybody (in) every district had the same base cost,” Fleeter said. “Now, it works in a way where that base cost is higher or lower in different districts depending on how many kids they have and the grades they’re in.”

The formula is more flexible in other ways, too, funding kids where they go to school rather than where they live. So, if a student attends a school under open enrollment, the per-pupil spending transfers to that school.

Crestwood offers open enrollment to students who live outside the district. So, the per-pupil spending of $7,276 is now sent to Crestwood instead of the students’ home district. According to their five-year forecast with the Fair School Funding Plan included, “the tuition the district was paying as a transfer to other (districts) will be eliminated and FY 2022 expenditures should decrease.” A potential savings of $1,089,722 is in the forecast.

Jen Wilson teaches third grade at Crestwood Primary School. She greets students during morning arrivals near the parent drop-off location and in front of Brett Rogers’ speaker. Kelly Krabill/The Portager

More money for high-cost services

Students with disabilities, those who speak English as a second language, gifted children and economically disadvantaged students all require extra services that cost school districts more money. The new funding formula attempts to adjust state aid for these children.

“A dollar does not go as far in a high-poverty district or in a district with a lot of students with disabilities as it does in a district where you don’t have those kids that are more expensive to teach,” Fleeter said. 

Additional staffing and programs are needed for extra-needs students, which would typically require more funding from the state. But the disparities vary across Portage County schools.

For example, Aurora’s median income is $113,438, and only 5.7% of students in the district are economically disadvantaged, according to the Ohio Department of Education. Moreover, Aurora does not allow open enrollment, so poor students living outside the district are unable to attend. The district can easily afford to educate the 11% of its students who have disabilities.

Meanwhile, in Kent, households have a median income of $36,809, 40% of the student body is poor and 19% of the students have disabilities. One hundred percent of the student body in Ravenna and Windham school districts is economically disadvantaged, according to the state.

At Southeast, 39% of students are economically disadvantaged students, and 11% of students have disabilities. The district has a median income of $36,288.

Southeast Local Schools Superintendent Robert Dunn said there are not many jobs to keep families in the area.

“We have a lot of low income in our district because we’re five townships,” he explained. “We (are) a little bit transient, which means people will move in for a while and then they’ll move out, particularly because we’re not close to a lot of major industries.”

As a result of these economic differences, some students in Portage County get less help. And it’s not just students with disabilities who are disadvantaged — gifted students also receive less support.

Take Aurora and Southeast’s gifted services. In math, 6.2% of Southeast students are identified as gifted, whereas 7.6% rank gifted in Aurora. But when it comes to providing them with gifted services in math, Southeast can only address 3.7% of students, while Aurora reaches 6.7% of them. Aurora has enough money to offer gifted services to nearly all students and Southeast doesn’t. 

Dunn said the district is in need of more money to hire additional staff. According to 2018-2019 data, 2,430 students rank gifted in Portage County.

The two-year solution for Ohio schools

There’s no question the new formula will provide a more equitable education to children across Portage County and the State of Ohio. The question that does remain is: Will it continue past 2023?

When it’s time for the legislature to review the budget next year, “is it sustainable at the current funding formula that the state has?” Dunn asked. 

Ohio spent more money on primary and secondary education than at any other time in the state’s history during the 2021 fiscal year, according to the Department of Education. The funding in 2021 was more than $10.8 billion and is estimated at $11.4 billion this year, an increase of $518.7 million.

This new funding formula has a six-year phase-in period and is currently being implemented for two years. But depending on future approvals, districts might need to ask voters for more money if the state can’t afford it.

That’s not a given in some Portage County school districts, as past elections have shown. Waterloo hasn’t passed a levy since 2013. Crestwood’s latest levies were in 1992 and 2002.

Legislatures have “to decide what they want to do,” said Toth, the Crestwood superintendent. 

“The hard part for any district is you gotta keep going back to the voters,” he said. “It’s a rough, tough system to keep going back to voters constantly.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story reported that Kent households have an average income of $36,809. That is the median income.

Kelly Krabill
+ posts
  1. Thank you for reporting how strapped Waterloo is and showing how the superintendent on down are doing beyond to keep the district going. The naysayers don’t realize. Now please report on how BioMed and other charter schools are causing money problems for local districts. I could be more blunt but will reserve that for another day. My feelings is Ohio taxpayers are being scammed out of millions of dollars by so-calling charter schools.

  2. I have to admit I have done so many interviews these past few months, particularly about the teacher shortage, I had forgotten that I had interviewed with you a few months back. Thank you for investigating the inequities in school funding in Portage County. Excellent research, graphs, etc. It will be very informative for the community.

    Just a small minor thing, but it is important to me since I am a faculty member, in addition to Director of Educator Preparation, in physical education. I would please request that any future reporting does not use ‘gym teacher’ but rather physical education teacher. We take great pride in being educators – gym is just the space for where physical education occurs. Also, Brett was my former student!

  3. you used “median’ for aurora and then “average” for kent right below it. This implies that they are the same measurement, which they are not.

  4. The state should drop the property tax model and increase the base sales tax (or the state income tax), then distribute the money evenly across all districts. The state constitution says that the sate has the responsibility to pay for schooling, therefore the burden should lie with the state, not the local communities. This would place the burden of paying for schooling onto ALL Ohio residents, not just those that own property.

    Also, the fed should butt out. If they want to help fund education, fine. But there are too many disparities between the states and communities within them for a one size fits all educational standards model to work.

  5. Interesting information! Thank you for the objectivity in sharing this imortant information with our community members. As I was reading, I wondered why there was no mention of the status of districts where school funding is covered by the income tax rather than property tax. Please do the research and show how beneficial it has been for our schools—and our tax-payers—to rely on earned income tax for educational funding. Again, thanks for your great work!

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