The Ohio legislature is expected to overhaul the state’s school funding formula by the end of its lame-duck session this month, the most recent attempt to address a system declared unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court four times.
The state’s highest court found the existing system of relying on property taxes for school funding unfairly favored districts with higher property values. That system, in conjunction with Northeast Ohio’s history of redlining, disproportionately hurts majority-Black communities and school districts.
Warrensville Heights And The Matter Of Property Values
Drive through certain parts of Warrensville Heights and you’ll come upon several gigantic apartment buildings. There are an estimated 4,000 rental units in the city and they are home to many of the local public school kids, who are mostly Black and come from low- to middle-income families.
In other parts of the city of about 13,000 on the East Side of Cleveland, the streets are filled with modest single-family homes sitting tightly next to one another, built in the post-WWII era, when white families were fulfilling the suburban American dream.
But Warrensville Heights, like other communities in the Cleveland area, experienced a mass white exodus during the latter half of the 20th century as African Americans moved in to fulfill their own American dreams, Warrensville Heights Mayor Brad Sellers said.
“It just so happened that Warrensville Heights was one of three communities of color that really let African Americans move into the community: Warrensville Heights, Shaker Heights and East Cleveland,” said Sellers of the 1970s. “And in a six-year period, there was a mass exodus here. Let me say, there were some good people here that moved from here. But because of the climate here, people were spewing things about what was going to happen, people became unnerved.”
By the time the Great Recession hit and the housing bubble burst around 2008, Sellers said Warrensville Heights and other predominantly black cities in Cuyahoga County faced a form of redlining.
“The issue is when the economy starts to return, there should be an increase in [housing] valuation, especially as I look across the rest of the county and their valuations are returning. Some tenfold, right?” Sellers said. “Well, there were some places that there was no valuation return or very miniscule, and one of them is Warrensville Heights.”
Houses that were worth $100,000 were being valued at $40,000, according to Sellers. Working with the banks to get home values raised and build a business base in Warrensville Heights has been a long road, Sellers said, but one he is proud of, attributing the success, in part, to the hard work of the community.
Fast forward to today and Warrensville Heights is more than 90 percent African American. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, between 2014 and 2018, the median household income was just under $35,000 and the median house value just under $80,000.
Home values, income levels and the aging population all of this impacts how much money Warrensville Heights City Schools can raise in with levies.
Senior citizens make up the majority of homeowners in the city and are the backbone of the Warrensville Heights school community, the ones who determine if a levy passes or fails, Warrensville Heights City Schools Superintendent Donald Jolly said.
“In a lot of areas, when you have older residents whose kids already graduated from school, have no ties to the district, sometimes they don't vote for the levy because it doesn't impact them directly,” Jolly said. “We've been blessed here because we stay in tune to our seniors. We attend the meetings, we communicate with them, and actually, they see progress. And as they see the progress, they have been willing to support us throughout my six years here.”
The Warrensville Heights City School District went from an F to a C on the state report cards in two years, a "great testament to the hard work" of teachers, staff and parents, according to Superintendent Donald Jolly. [Jenny Hamel / ideastream]
Warrensville Heights schools also have the benefit of tax dollars from businesses that have landed in the city: on Warrensville Center Road near the I-270 and I-480 interchange is the JACK Thistledown Racetrack and Casino and just across the street sits the behemoth Amazon fulfillment center, dwarfing the semitractor-trailers parked next to it.
Businesses like these make up 70 percent of the city’s tax base and have shouldered much of the financial burden for the school district, according to Jolly.
“We're blessed to have the Amazon fulfillment center in our school district. We're blessed to have JACK Casino in our school district. We're blessed to have Eaton Corporation in our district,” Jolly said. “But years ago, when there was nothing, we suffered significantly because we didn't have the business base that we currently have now. So with the economic upturn, it has significantly helped our district.”
Redlining "Sucked Wealth Out Of Communities"
The story of the inequity facing many predominantly Black school districts in Northeast Ohio can be directly connected to a wrought history of systemic racism, starting with the redlining maps drawn for banks in the 1930s that deemed certain communities not suitable for home loans, said Piet van Lier, an education policy analyst at Policy Matters Ohio.
Redlining drove white people out of certain areas, denied Black people home loans and, ultimately, lowered the value not just of houses but of entire regions, van Lier said.
“It sucked wealth out of communities. People left those communities. Predominately Black and brown people that lived in those communities couldn’t get loans and the housing stock diminished,” he said.
And redlining’s long-lasting legacy is school districts with the greatest needs and the least resources, van Lier said.
“You know, schools are dealing with health care issues, mental health issues. You know, people don't have good jobs. They don't have broadband, they don't have internet access,” he said. “They don't have all the things they need so the schools are being expected to step in and be the source for all that.”
School-aged children living in a struggling district can’t go to one with more resources, due to closed enrollment policies, he added.
“Kids in Cleveland or East Cleveland can't go to any other school district. These jurisdictions have been created as hard and fast boundaries. That's part of the inequity,” van Lier said. “Whatever money is raised locally stays local. It creates a very inequitable structure that really harms urban and inner ring-type districts, and advantages the wealthier districts.”
The Ohio Fair School Funding Plan
The Ohio Fair School Funding Plan, introduced by Ohio House Speaker Rep. Robert Cupp (R-Lima) and Rep. John Patterson (D-Jefferson) would address these inequities in various ways. The state would contribute $2 billion more annually to Ohio’s public schools and determine a base cost for educating an average student in an average district. In addition, the state would determine how much a local district can actually raise for itself based on property values and income levels.
The plan would be a significant move towards a system that acknowledges the need to support low-income districts, van Lier said, provided the state can actually raise the $2 billion.
“As we should be increasingly aware, we're all in this together. No matter where we live, what we look like, we want our kids to have good schools,” van Lier said. “It's a human rights issue, right? It’s like the right to a basic quality education is really something that we all deserve and we all need.”
Jolly is “cautiously optimistic” legislators in Columbus will pass these changes to the school funding system. Currently, Warrensville Heights students who attend charter schools or use state-provided vouchers for private schools cost the district $4 million.
The Warrensville Heights School District received an F on its annual state report cards for the 2015-16 and 2016-17 school years. The district improved to a C over two years. The porposed school funding plan would ease the burden on superintendents like Jolly to seek resident support for tax levies and instead allow them to focus on the job at hand, he said.
“You don't have to spend six months campaigning every two or three years,” Jolly said. “That would make it much easier. And then with the additional funds, especially with this pandemic and students not being in school will be able to really catch our kids and offer extended school year, provide strategic interventions to ensure that we get our kids caught up since they haven't attended school full time since the pandemic.”
Warrensville Heights Schools Superintendent Donald Jolly said more revenue from the state would allow administrators like him to focus on educating students and getting them "caught up" after the pandemic. [Jenny Hamel / ideastream]