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Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Artful Dodger

If anyone wants to learn how to avoid answering tough questions, take a look at Ohio Office of Budget and Management spokesman Jim Lynch in today's Gongwer. He is responding to the report I authored for Innovation Ohio that showed school districts have had to go for far more levies and far more additional operating money since Gov. John Kasich took office than the during the similar time frame under Gov. Ted Strickland:

" Office of Budget and Management spokesman Jim Lynch, said, however, data and news reports reviewed by the office indicates the total number of school levies this fall is below the historical average, which holds the same for earlier election cycles. 
'It's easy to be innovative with statistics, to slice and dice data in ways that yield the particular conclusion that serves your agenda,' he said. 'Before you're satisfied with these agenda-oriented reports, ask if the sources have looked across a longer period of time - say 10 years - for some historical perspective.' 
Mr. Lynch said Gov. Kasich has made education a key priority to help improve results in Ohio's classrooms. 
'His Achievement Everywhere Plan, signed in late June, allocates $1.6 billion in new state funds for the next two fiscal years, putting more dollars into Ohio classrooms so that FY 2015 funding levels will exceed FY 2011 actual state spending by $1.39 billion,' he said.
Mr. Lynch simply dismissed what we did without disputing a single thing we did. He actually didn't look at the data at all, citing simply some media reports and nebulous "data" his office had reviewed (from where, he doesn't say). I do give him credit for the "innovative with statistics" line. Get it? Innovation Ohio. Innovative with statistics.

Yup. He went there.

The reason Mr. Lynch won't dispute our report is because it is right. I looked at each levy on the ballot for the two time periods to determine which levy was an ask for new money to fund operations and which was not. I used both the Ohio School Boards Association database and the Ohio Secretary of State's office for the data. I did not include Bond issues, nor did I include renewal or replacement levies. If there were combination levies, I only included the money for operations. Why did I do it this way? Because cuts to the state's operating budget would most directly impact the operational portion of a district's budget. As Ohio School Boards Association President Charles Wilson put it: 
"‘….if you are trying to measure the impact of state funding cuts on the (schools’) main operating budget, Innovation Ohio’s measurement is better because it effectively measures the local operational impact of cuts made in the state’s operating budget.’
Mr. Lynch knows this. Which is why he didn't really dispute our methodology, just impugned the reasons we did it. He said we should look at a 10-year time frame for comparison. Sounds reasonable, except that would tell us nothing about the question we were looking at, which was whether there has been any impact on new money asks for operations as a result of the historically huge cuts Gov. Kasich made in his first budget ($1.8 billion), and only partially replaced in his second (now $515 million cut). 

By the way, three out of four districts still receive less over the next two years than they did in the last budget under Strickland, which, coincidentally, was the first time on record that a larger share of the education funding pie came from the state (as is required under the Ohio Constitution) than local property taxpayers

And Kasich's Achievement Everywhere plan that Mr. Lynch cites was so universally panned that the Ohio Legislature, run by his own party, ditched it this spring for one of their own.

It is true that overall numbers of new levies are about the same between the two governors. However, that number alone is misleading. Which is why you have to "slice and dice the data" (as Mr. Lynch suggests) to determine which levies are increasing and decreasing. What you find is that the only reason the amount of levies are similar is because there were about the same number of additional bond issues under Strickland as there are additional operational issues under Kasich. Why would that be? Because in 2007, Strickland securitized about $5 billion in tobacco settlement money that he put into the Ohio School Facilities Commission. So districts took a run at incredible financing opportunities for new facilities. 

The only reason there are more bond issues under Strickland is because he put $5 billion more into school facilities. The reason there are more operational levies under Kasich is because he has provided hundreds of millions dollars less for public education.

Look, I don't mind Mr. Lynch coming after me or my organization. Because I know it's all he has, and that's his job. When you can't argue the facts, attack the one making the argument. Or Artfully Dodge the question. Whatever works.

But the data demonstrate pretty clearly that state funding cuts have forced School Districts to go for more new operating money more often. And for that, Mr. Lynch apparently has no real answer.