COLUMBUS — The new Ohio biennial budget has plenty of potential to impact schools, with measures including the creation of a school safety tipline, new high school graduation requirements, and boosts in funding for school lunches and new drug prevention curriculum.
Perhaps the most notable change, however, is the new student wellness and success fund. A total of $675 million will be distributed statewide to provide mental health services, physical health services, mentoring and after-school programs, according to a budget fact sheet released by the governor’s office. Other potential uses include services for homeless youth, family engagement and support services and professional development for educators on topics like cultural competence and trauma informed care.
“These funds will target our at-risk kids — those affected by mental illness, addiction, poverty, trauma, homelessness and broken family structures,” said Rep. Rick Carfagna, who lauded the fund as the most significant education-related measure in the budget. “The sooner we can get resources in place for these children, the better the chance that we can break their barriers to learning and give them a pathway towards a hopeful future.”
Each school district in Ohio will receive a set dollar amount of student wellness and success funds, calculated based on the district’s total enrollment and percentage of students in poverty. In Knox County, the total funds dispersed over the next two fiscal years ranges from approximately $200,000 to Centerburg up to $2.59 million to Mount Vernon.
Each school district will be required to develop a plan for using the funds in coordination with at least one community organization. Schools will also be required to submit a report to the Ohio Department of Education after each fiscal year describing how the money was spent.
While the money is secured for the next two years, school administrators still have to work out the logistics of how the funds can be spent in compliance with state law.
“We are pleased and thankful for the additional revenues in this budget and appreciate Governor DeWine’s emphasis on student wellness and success,” said Bill Seder, superintendent of the Mount Vernon City School District. “The only real surprise … was the requirement to work with an outside agency to develop a plan on how to use the additional funds. We will evaluate the list of outside agencies to see who aligns best with our vision in addressing the many challenges our students face.”
“I’m encouraged by the money that they’ve provided for some wraparound services,” said Steve Larcomb, superintendent of the East Knox Local School District. “I am concerned about when those services are going to take place. Are we to carve out time during the school day or will those be offered before and after school?”
Larcomb noted the district was working to meet the social and emotional needs of students even before there was designated funding. After years of having a part-time social worker at the junior high and high school, the district hired its social worker full-time last school year. Ongoing support from United Way of Knox County has funded the employment of an elementary school social worker for the last nine years.
East Knox isn’t the only district that’s foreseen the need for such supports. The Mount Vernon City School District has been financing various programs from its general fund, which exists to pay basic operating expenses.
“We have been very proactive in this area prior to this budget as we have added school social workers, reading tutors, implemented a social emotional curriculum and added school nurse assistants in all of our buildings,” said Seder. “We are currently piloting several other student-driven initiatives that seem to align to the legislative mandates.”
“I’m so proud of our schools for the creative and sacrificial ways they are currently trying to address these issues, but additional resources are needed and will be very welcome,” said Margie Bennett, president of the Mount Vernon City School District’s board of education. “The challenge will be to implement new programs and services that will positively impact the district long term, since there is no guarantee that state funds will continue beyond the biennium budget.”
Seder told the News that having designated funds for student wellness and success might allow the district to use the money its been spending in these areas on other needs in the district. Educators are still waiting to hear from the Ohio Department of Education about whether they can “supplant” the funds — take the new money and use it to fund ongoing wellness and success projects.
The way Ohio’s public schools are funded has been tweaked with nearly every two-year operating budget since the state Supreme Court ruled that the school funding formula was unconstitutional in 1994. Reps. Bob Cupp and John Patterson have been working on a bipartisan measure to remedy school funding disparity, but a complete version wasn’t ready in time for this year’s budget.
Another challenge for schools is that while they are receiving more funding than before, the bump is entirely due to the Student Wellness and Success funds. There was no increase in foundation funds, which can be used for a broader range of expenses.
“Since the total increase in state funding is for the Wellness Grant, there is no allowance for inflation in the costs of other important ongoing school expenses,” Bennett explained.
Seder stated that the support from the community, specifically the renewal of ongoing general expense levies in November, will be helpful in counterbalancing inflation without raising taxes.
“We are hopeful that the flat-funded foundation aid will be a short term solution as we, like most all districts, will need additional general funds to stave off deficit spending,” he said. “We will continue to maximize our revenues and seek opportunities to reduce expenditures to stretch every dollar.”
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