By Susan Tebben

Ohio Capital Journal

An Ohio Senate committee brought representatives from several education groups together to discuss what school districts will need to start the new school year in the fall. 

The Senate Finance Committee held a panel discussion Tuesday, in which they heard from the Buckeye Association of School Administrators, the Ohio Education Association, the Ohio Federation of Teachers and the Ohio School Board Association. 

Those who spoke during the meeting said proper funding to allow equity in schools, proper safety measures to make sure high-risk populations are protected, and flexibility for school districts to plan for their unique needs are all top priorities for districts across the state.

“Schools will and should reopen when public health standards can be met,” said OEA President Scott DiMauro. “When that happens, we look forward to welcoming our students to a more equitable, safe and dynamic learning environment that meets the promise of public education that all students, parents, families and educators deserve.”

The education groups spoke highly of assistance brought through House Bill 197, the legislature’s response to coronavirus-related economic losses, and said the resources need to be replicated if districts are to continue in the current education landscape.

But the $300 million in foundation cuts made by state Gov. Mike DeWine, along with $55 million in line-item cuts to education won’t be easy to take in planning for the future. The increased safety and educational needs brought on by COVID-19 should not amount to staff or other reductions, administrators told the committee.

“Our students, as well as their families, are going to need more from us than they have ever needed before,” OFT President Melissa Cropper said. “We cannot forfeit their futures by cutting resources, reducing staff, or making reactive, fear-based decisions.”

Written testimony was submitted by representatives from Columbus City Schools, the Ohio Jewish Communities, the Ohio School Counselor Association, the Ohio Association of Career Technical Superintendents and the Ohio Association for Comprehensive and Compact Career-Technical Schools.

One of the requests made by both those who attended the meeting and those that submitted their testimony in writing was for quick decision making that allowed districts to start planning, and answered some of the unknowns that litter education as of now — what will the school year look like, and how much control will each school district have going forward?

“Uncertainty is the greatest factor we currently face — uncertainty for the educational program our families may need and want during this crisis, uncertainty of what our revenues may be as the State discusses further reductions, uncertainty of what our expenses may be in order to bring students back safely,” wrote Talisa L. Dixon, Superintendent and CEO of Columbus City Schools.

Finance Committee Chair, state Sen. Matt Dolan, R-Chagrin Falls, said the discussion could continue in another meeting as the legislature decides how to help students and districts with things like sanitization, transportation, classroom size and educational standards. 

Sen. Peggy Lehner, R-Kettering, who is also chair of the Senate Education Committee, said schools and communities should treat recovery as they would the damage from a tornado, assessing needs and moving quickly.

“But behind all that is the question, when we do get cleaned up, what do we want our community to look like,” Lehner said. “How do we fix the things that are really broken in our community and not just rebuild them?”

Sen. Stephanie Kunze emphasized what she says she’s heard from districts in her region, which is the need for a solid deadline to finalize school-year planning. Typically, schools finalize planning and staff decisions by July. Whatever plans go into place, Kunze said the education environment has seen permanent changes already.

“We’re not going to ever go back to March 2020, school’s never going to look like it did then,” Kunze said.

Susan Tebben is an award-winning journalist with a decade of experience covering Ohio news, including courts and crime, Appalachian social issues, government, education, diversity and culture. She has worked for The Newark Advocate, The Glasgow Daily Times, The Athens Messenger, and WOUB Public Media. She has also had work featured on National Public Radio. Read more Ohio Capital Journal stories here.