John Wells has a purpose for showing his language arts students the movie “Mean Girls” in class.
He does so to teach the storytelling device of irony, sharing familiar examples in pop culture: from Batman and Shakespeare.
As such, when the Mt. Healthy High School teacher learned of Gov. Mike DeWine’s plan to cut hundreds of millions of dollars from the Ohio public education budget, Wells couldn’t help but think of his lesson plans.
“For an English teacher who works every year with irony, the dark humor of (the cuts) happening during ‘Teacher Appreciation Week’ is not lost on me,” Wells said.
He wasn’t alone in observing that irony. Elyria High School teacher Matt Jablonski too was miffed at seeing the Ohio Department of Education’s Twitter account posting the hashtag #OhioLovesTeachers just an hour after DeWine announced the cuts.
Jim Lloyd, the superintendent at Olmsted Falls City Schools in Cuyahoga County, offered a similar take:
DeWine announced these cuts to K-12 and higher education at his May 5 press briefing. The governor cited budget strains caused by the COVID-19 pandemic as a reason for the cuts, though he resisted calls to instead spend from the state’s multi-billion dollar “rainy day fund.” The governor believes that money may prove to be better needed down the road.
In the days following this announcement, the Capital Journal heard from more than a dozen teachers and administrators throughout Ohio who expressed dismay at the governor’s decision. Most acknowledge the state faces significant financial peril during this pandemic, but they wish the governor hadn’t decided to first turn to public education in filling the gap.
“To say (Tuesday’s) announcement does not sit well is an understatement,” said Jablonski, whose school district in Elyria is losing more than $1.1 million in funding, or $167 per student.
The specific district funding losses cited in this article were reported by cleveland.com’s Rich Exner.
‘DeWine has robbed Peter to pay Paul’
Amanda Karpus is a school board member for the Parma City School District, which is losing $2.4 million in funding, or $212 per student. Karpus worries about a domino effect that ends with school districts losing trust within their communities.
Karpus said these cuts may result in a district “deficit spending” earlier in their five-year financial forecast than was expected. This could then lead to districts proposing a tax levy to stay afloat, Karpus said, making them appear like a “villain” to local residents.
“DeWine has effectively robbed Peter to pay Paul,” Karpus said, “and then left Peter to be stoned by the taxpayers.”
Justin Giddy’s school district in Albany, a small village in Southeast Ohio, knows that struggle too well. The Alexander Local School District spent years appealing to voters for help in alleviating the problem of flat state funding. It took six attempts to pass an income tax, but the district finally prevailed in May 2019 — by just one vote.
Giddy, who teaches fifth grade at Alexander Elementary School, said he feels anxious about what the budget cuts mean for the future of his district.
He has taught via “distance learning” since March, but it hasn’t been easy. The rural district cannot afford to offer devices to all students and many of them have limited to no internet access at home. Giddy and other teachers send work packets home to students with the hope that parents and guardians will help with completing them.
“It is a cobbled together solution to get us to summer,” Giddy said, “and whatever fall entails will certainly require more resources and training, not less.”
Other school districts have not had as much luck at the ballot box as Alexander did last year.
Take the Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District. The district’s levy failed in the primary election by a margin of 600 votes. The levy would have contributed $8 million in new revenue per year, but instead the district now faces a $1.4 million cut in state funding, or $215 per student.
Claudia Stadler, an English teacher at Cleveland Heights High School, took issue with the decision to cut public education rather than spend from the rainy day fund.
“What is this pandemic,” she asked, “if not a rainy day?”
The Ohio Federation of Teachers has come out against the cuts, with President Melissa Cropper saying the state’s K-12 schools are in need of more resources, not less.
Shari Obrenski, president of the Cleveland Teachers Union, echoed that sentiment.
“We are disappointed in the governor’s announcement, as I believe it is evident that our public schools will be in desperate need of more resources, not fewer, in the upcoming year as the result of the impact of the COVID-19 virus,” Obrenski said in a provided statement.
Emma Vierheller offered a unique perspective as a math teacher at Penta Career Center, a Perrysburg-based technical school serving five counties in Northwest Ohio.
“I’m disappointed, but not surprised, that public education is on the chopping block,” the math teacher said.
It’s been a tough spring for the career center, the students of which benefit most from hands-on learning.
“Distance learning takes away the best parts of teaching and leaves the paperwork,” Vierheller said.
She said it is particularly difficult to deliver career-technical instruction, with some students worried they won’t be able to earn the certifications necessary for their trade.
“I have been really proud of them for trying to muddle through it all,” Vierheller said.
Pride in DeWine, then disappointment
Many of the teachers who shared their perspectives with the Capital Journal said the recent cut to education was a tipping point in their views of DeWine.
Vierheller, as an example, said she has appreciated the governor’s commitment to “wraparound services” and his support of career-tech education. These cuts, she said in contrast, feel more like a “punch in the gut.”
Stadler said she didn’t support DeWine in the 2018 gubernatorial election, but had been “grateful for his leadership in handling the pandemic.”
Karpus, the school board member from Parma, said she had been on “Team DeWine” during the pandemic. In her view, this recent action reflects him having “slipped back into his old ways.”
Wells said he had been “proud of the state’s leadership in preventative measures” at the beginning of this crisis, but the governor’s decision to not spend any “rainy day” money has him feeling confused.
“I’m now left wondering about the governor’s foresight when his argument against what I would consider funding for preventative measures is that things could get worse,” Wells said. “I can’t follow that logic.”
Wells is a graduate of Miami University and only had to travel 20 miles south for his teaching job at Mt. Healthy High School. His enthusiasm for the subject material is clear; asked about his lesson plans involving irony, Wells delved into a lengthy explanation about the differences of situational, dramatic and verbal ironies.
As with most classroom lessons, that one works best when students can observe it in person. Wells likes to show them a scene from a movie, such as “Mean Girls,” and students get to discuss their general expectation of what happens next. Wells then shows them the next scene to demonstrate how an ironic situation can play out.
Wells said one might expect, on Teacher Appreciation Week of all weeks, the state would offer increased funding or at least provide outreach to educators on how to make their jobs easier during a pandemic.
Instead, he and other teachers around Ohio observed the next scene: massive budget cuts.
Wells went from being the teacher to learning things the hard way.
Tyler Buchanan is an award-winning journalist who has covered Ohio politics and government for the past decade. A Bellevue native and graduate of Bowling Green State University, he most recently spent 6 1/2 years as a reporter and editor of The Athens Messenger and Vinton-Jackson Courier newspapers. He is a member of the BG News Alumni Society Board and was a 2019 fellow in the Kiplinger Program in Public Affairs Journalism. Read more Ohio Capital Journal stories here.