Thursday, April 05, 2007

Anti-Tax Group Suing School Districts over GIRFOF Advocacy

The Cincinnati-base anti-tax group C.O.A.S.T – that’s Citizens Opposed to Additional Taxes, though they don’t much like extant taxes either – is suing two school districts for advocating the GIRFOF on their websites.

I haven’t found any press coverage of the suit, though it was filed on the Friday black news hole, so that may be why. Someone sent me a link to the C.O.A.S.T. press release announcing the suit. The release helpfully includes links to pdf’s of the two complaints. Probably by design they chose one defendant school district in each of the two Federal Court districts in Ohio.

The essence of the suit is that the districts have established a forum for discussing the issue and won’t let C.O.A.S.T. use the forum to advance its position. To use magic law words, they are accusing the districts of “viewpoint discrimination” in a “public forum.”

What the C.O.A.S.T. folks seem most upset about is that school districts are advocating for the GIRFOF. C.O.A.S.T. can’t sue about that, however. Generally speaking, the government is allowed to speak, and in fact to hold a point of view. Check out the White House website. They seem to be generally in favor of the war in Iraq.

What the government cannot do is create a forum in which citizens can speak, then only allow those citizens holding a point of view favored by the government to use that forum. That’s why the complaints accuse the schools of establishing fora on their websites. It’s also why C.O.A.S.T. went to the trouble of asking to put their anti-GIRFOF material on the sites before filing the lawsuit.

I can’t tell much about the factual merits of the claim. Both sites appear to have been scrubbed of GIRFOF content. For First Amendment purposes, a forum is something used by people other than the government and its agents – remember the government is allowed to advocate. It appears from the complaints that the school districts did not set up a blog or a bulletin board or any other sort of community site that allows citizens to post content.

The complaints include one potentially ground-breaking allegation. The complaints are nearly identical, differing only in the parties and some factual specifics. The relevant allegation appears in paragraph 11: “the District maintained a forum on its official website . . . for the display (by means of hyperlink) of viewpoints on the Amendment.”

While a forum generally means something available for use by third parties, C.O.A.S.T. is alleging that by linking to a third party’s website, a government entity is opening a forum. I doubt this will fly, but it’s a clever argument.

As I said, the websites for both Ontario Local and East Muskingum are largely GIRFOF free now. Without the links, it becomes much harder for C.O.A.S.T. to maintain the lawsuit. But setting aside whatever feelings I may have about the GIRFOF, I hope someone goes to the mat on this suit. For one thing, the question of whether providing third-party links is tantamount to opening a forum is interesting in a law-and-tech geeky sort of way.

But more importantly, I fear that if school districts simply back down when it comes to GIRFOF advocacy, C.O.A.S.T. will be emboldened to bully them about other issues. After all, if school districts cannot advocate for GIRFOF without creating fora that must be open to all comers, the same could be said about school levies, or testing requirements. For that matter, privatization advocates could argue that they have the right to argue against the very existence of public schools on the district websites.

19 comments:

Anonymous said...

In NH this is ILLEGAL and it's called 'compelled speech'. It is not right because these liberal spender communists have the captive audience and use them to spread their propaganda without an opposing view. Thus the country through public education is becoming more and more frighteningly 'progressive' which in truth means regressive because they steal more and more from the taxpayers.

Anonymous said...

This is the kind of thing they only do in dictatorships. I can't believe you would support the schools on this...there should be no political propaganda in schools, better yet get rid of all public schools.

ohdave said...

Well, I think anonymous has highlighted the real agenda of people like COAST with his final line: better yet get rid of all public schools. Few wingers will actually come out and say so but it seems pretty clear that their ultimate goal is to replace a system of publicly operated schools with a system of private schools which simply receive no strings attached money from the federal government.

But back to the point. My understanding of the law is that school districts cannot use taxpayer resources for promoting things even as seemingly innocuous as a school levy for example without providing equal access to opposing points of view. That is why most levy literature is from a group like "Citizens for Strong Public Schools" and the mailings, etc., all come from that group.

Now if the district sends home a flyer in the students' bookbags supporting the levy, they have to be willing to send home also a "vote no" flyer if there is a registered group who requests it.

Most districts don't worry about this, and just do it anyway, they just send the stuff home because they know no one will challenge them on it. But if you have assholes like COAST in your district who are organized and registered, then you have to be much more careful.

The district will lose this suit, I am afraid. If they provide a link to a pro-amendment group, they will probably have to provide a link to an anti-amendment group. I am surprised their legal staff has decided it's worth the effort to fight this battle. COAST knows the law and uses it to their wicked advantage.

ohdave said...

As you can see, living in the Cincinnati area I have a little experience with COAST :)

They have caused some real problems in Mason. If you want to get some background on them contact some people down there and they will tell you all you ever wanted to know about their tactics and "philosophy".

blogsearch.sg said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Pho said...

ohdave:

You make an interesting point about the prohibition on using school resources to advocate for levies. I suspect that is a specific state law and, having worked on levy campaigns, I wonder how I forgot about it. On the other hand, the COASTERS didn't sue on that, they sued based on the First Amendment. As I said, I hope that someone, sometime steps into COAST and beats that claim back.

Anon:

Did we forget our lithium today?

Eric said...

So, twelve state ed organizations unite to help Ohio public schools look incompetent. Wonder if they have yet put together a high school lesson plan on the pros and cons of their amendment... (Wouldn't that be consistent with the duties of citizenship?)

From COAST's Ontario comnplaint:

"Find out what you can do to make Ohio's school funding more cost-effective and ensure that all of Ohio's school children receive a high-quality education. [link to GIRFOF website]"

Doesn't the Ontario board already know how to make funding more cost-effective? Or is that something distinct from their charge of making schools cost-effective?

As much as I dislike self-styled Boston Tea Partiers, bureaucrats who set districts up to look silly when challenged are even more galling.

Paul said...

Pho:

I have watched my community be systematically harvested by residential developers and the politicians on their payroll, and a couple of years ago decided to do something about it. As a business executive, the first thing I wanted to understand was money flows -- where did money come from, and where was it going. It was only then that I understood the complex relationship between suburban development and school operations.

It comes down to this: the public school system has the authority to suck up money from the local taxpayers to build a school system which is has sufficient quality to attract more people to the community. That creates the demand for more houses, and the developers get rich. In fact, they get so rich that they spend a lot of money supporting the local politicians to make sure the developers are granted all the zoning and infrastructure support they need. Every anti-development politician in our community has been ridden out of town on a rail.

The trouble is that this is a Ponzi scheme. People build houses in our community because they love the schools, not knowing that their incremental tax contribution doesn't come close to paying the full cost of the demands they place on the school system. So the school board keeps coming back to the same taxpayers over and over to get more money to cover the funding shortage. Meanwhile the developers are getting richer all the time.

Having read and studied the proposed amendment language a couple of times, I'm quite sure that it will cost me more, and our school system will get less. The clue is one sentence in the amendment which says something like "no district will get more than it needs." I'm confident that it means districts like our will be capped, just as we are under the current budget.

If the stereotype is that right-wingers like big business and left-wingers like big government, then I’m as centrist as one can get. I think both are bad because all big entities seek self-preservation above all else, including their reason for existence.

My recommendation is to transform to a pure voucher system, where the money follows the kids. The vouchers are paid for by tax dollars, and every kid gets exactly the same dollar value assigned to their vouchers. Only accredited schools can turn in vouchers to the State for cash. To be an accredited school, the school must accept any student from Ohio, accept the voucher as 100% of tuition, and operate as a not-for-profit entity (ie no shareholders and no distribution of ‘profits’). The staff of the school must consist of licensed teachers, and the curriculum must meet the current state requirements. The kids must be able to pass whatever standardized testing is administered today. The State would have the responsibility of providing a transportation system which would take a kid from their home to any school within a reasonable distance at no cost.

I think we would end up with a combination of multi-building systems and individual boutique schools. Some would offer broad curricula and others would specialize. I envision the current school administrators running these schools (with some tune up of their business skills) under the supervision of a Board of Directors elected by the parents of the students who attend the schools.

I don’t understand why we give kids and parents a choice where to send their kids for post-secondary education, but not for primary and secondary education. Do we suddenly become better consumers of educational services when our kids graduate from high school? Why don’t we dictate where kids can go to college?

And finally, we have to recognize that public school systems in Ohio remain segregated, despite several decades of desegregation laws. But we do it in a more subtle and nefarious way than the days of explicit racial segregation. Our line today is: “anyone can attend our schools as long as you can afford to live in our neighborhood.” Consequently, the urban schools are poorer and less White than ever. Of the three largest districts in the state, Columbus, Cleveland and Cincinnati, the non-White population is 71%, 84% and 76% respectively. And they have among the largest per-pupil spending in the state. Blue Bexley did a beautiful analysis showing that there is no positive correlation between per-pupil spending and standardized test scores. Sending more money into these school systems won’t make the kids any less poor or the schools any less segregated. What we need to do is give those inner city kids a chance to attend the lily white suburban schools.

Sadly, as our own school district (Hilliard) has grown larger, the same kind of implicit segregation has crept into our community. While we are only a suburban district, our population is now over 75,000 and there are 15,000 kids in our schools. The affluent neighborhoods are in the northern part of the district and the multi-family and low-income housing is in the south. With 22 neighborhood school buildings, they are beginning to take on differing profiles that match the economic geography. With a third high school scheduled to come online in three years, our community is now engaged in a reassignment of neighborhoods to schools. Some, including me, want to use this opportunity to rebalance the demographics across the three buildings. Many, particularly those of the most affluent neighborhoods, want the attendance boundaries drawn simply on the basis of proximity. One person even got up and said that “those people” live in “those neighborhoods” because they want to! Like if a poor black family hit the Lotto they would say “hey, let’s stay here in the ghetto.”

If I wanted the state to spend more money on anything, it would be by creating affordable housing in the suburbs. I’m not talking about another generation of ‘The Projects’ but rather a community development policy which says that x% of any new housing development must be dedicated to affordable homes, interspersed through the whole development. Of course, this has zero chance of being implemented. Most of our suburban neighbors would gladly pay more and more taxes to make sure the poor blacks folks are kept in the ghettos where they belong. When they want to help the black folks, they'll go to their community and work in the soup kitchens and homeless shelters. Then they'll go back to their safe affluent neighborhoods, go into their big house with three cars in the garage, and set the alarm just in case they were followed.

We can’t keep feeding money into the same old system and expect it to get better. We need a new system. We need to let Americans – all Americans – do what they do best: Have a choice.

Pho said...

Paul,

Thanks as always for a well-thought out I'm not going to hash though your entire comment today -- we can have the voucher discussion incrementally over time.

I did want to mention this:

The trouble is that this is a Ponzi scheme. People build houses in our community because they love the schools, not knowing that their incremental tax contribution doesn't come close to paying the full cost of the demands they place on the school system.

Incrementally, this is entirely untrue. To talk in economic terms, the marginal cost of another student or two is next to nothing and the marginal revenue is quite high. Hilliard schools gets another 5000 from the state, almost free and clear (since they've already had the local share deducted.) Plus, the one instance in which property taxes can significantly increase with property values is when property is improved, so a new house brings in additional property tax revenue as well.

You might not like the school system, though it sounds more like you don't like development in your town. But you should be accurate in your description of the economic dynamics at work.

Eric said...

this is a Ponzi scheme ...
... Incrementally, this is entirely untrue


Pho- Paul has it right. Even a small PUD can add enough new kids to fill five classrooms. Your line of argumentation makes sense in the case of PSEO (no marginal cost for universities, direct cost to districts), but sprawl is large scale.

That's why desirable outer-ring suburban school districts ought to take an interest in urban and inner-ring districts achieving well. While it's nice to be a desirable district, sprawl is simply unsustainable. Maybe adopt-a-school as a service learning project could help.

Our community politics differ from Paul's. We would like to slow development, but local government is too underfunded for the planning and legal costs to make that happen. We tried: Home Builders Association of Dayton and the Miami Valley v. City of Beavercreek

Eric said...

public school systems in Ohio remain segregated, despite several decades of desegregation laws. But we do it in a more subtle and nefarious way than the days of explicit racial segregation.

If education becomes a fundamental right in Ohio, perhaps these cases can be relitigated. How about county-wide district consolidation with attendance boundaries drawn to maximize student diversity?

I don't know that de jure segregation ever happened in Ohio. AFAIK, it's always been achieved through attendence zones and white flight. (e.g. Clemons v. Board of Education of Hillsboro, gerrymandered attendance zones used to maintain an all-black elementary school.)

Paul said...

Eric:

re desegregation: I would advocate consolidation at the SMSA level. Assigning kids by attendance zones doesn't work because the most affluent families are also the most mobile. I've heard many families in our community say they would move if our new high school zones force their kids to go to school with 'those people.'

Instead, I would make it open enrollment - allowing any kid to attend any school, with transportation provided by the consolidated system.

The budget for each school building would be determined by the number of kids who go there.

Whoops, that sounds like vouchers doesn't it...

Paul said...

My education is in engineering and finance, so I understand the economic principles very well.

It's always interesting how the marginal vs fully-loaded costs enter into school funding conversations. It is true that you can say that the marginal cost of one incremental student is nearly zero, and marginal cost numbers have meaning in certain types of analyses.

But the shortcoming of the marginal cost approach is that as you keep adding one more student, you eventually get to that one that causes you to build another high school. Is the marginal cost of that one student $40 million? Certainly not. For a cost coverage analysis, one must include not only the variable costs associated with an incremental student, but also an allocation of the fixed costs. On this basis, an incremental home does not generate enough incremental taxes to fund both variable and fixed costs.

The situation in our community is that if you go back in time, say 10 years, the funding came equally from three sources: a) residential property taxes; b) commercial property taxes; and, c) State Foundation Aid. But residential construction began to outstrip commercial construction (indeed the commercial tax base actually contracted), it began a shift of the funding burden to residential property taxes. For a while, the State Foundation Aid remain relatively constant on a per-student basis, but starting three years ago, our state funding has been capped at a fixed dollar amount. That shifts even more of the funding burden to residential property owners.

And new houses continue to be built. This year, our district is building its 14th elementary school and 3rd high school. Our district treasurer has forecasted the need for an ADDITIONAL $40 million per year starting in 2011. It is likely that the average landowner in our district will need to shell out an additional $1,000 per year in school property taxes, if not more. My property taxes have been increasing 5%/yr for the past fifteen years, in spite of our assessed value actually decreasing in the last reappraisal.

Our community pays substantial state income taxes, but only about half of it comes back to us in the form of State Foundation Aid. Columbus City Schools has 100% of their income tax dollars returned. One school system in central Ohio receives 200% of its income tax dollars back. I have no problem with this, taxes are after all largely a wealth redistribution mechanism (aka a system of transfer payments). But we need some tools to help defend the financial viability of our communities vs. the developers. The best weapon is the ability of a school district to levy impact fees. Our state representative sponsored such a bill in the last General Assembly, but it was easily defeated.

There’s lots of moving parts in this school apparatus. Funding is one issue. Segregation is another. They’re all connected, and we can’t solve them one at a time. A radical change is needed. I recommend that we start with a voucher system of the type described in my earlier comment.

Thanks for the forum.

Paul said...

Pho:

By the way, our state funding is currently $36.8 million/yr, so at 15,000 students, this works out to $2,453/student, half the $5,000 you suggested in your note. The trouble is that the $36.8 million has been kept constant as the number of students continues to grow. Gov. Strickland's new budget freezes us at the same $36.8 million for the next two years, even though 500 more students are projected during that period. That's one more elementary school building...

Pho said...

Oooh, I hate being wrong.

To the extent I am, two considerations are important. First, Hilliard may be on the guarantee, which changes everything. A district is on the guarantee when the total state allocation (ADM x base cost) is less than the local share charge-off (taxable value x 23 mills.) This happens to high-property-value. For primarly political reasons, such districts get a set amount. Guarantee districts really suffer when they grow because don't get any extra money from the state when their ADM goes up.

Assuming you are not on the guarantee, I say again, you get another $5000 or so, from the state, per kid. That gets offset by whatever the additional property value is when calculating the local share chargoff, but the new family also represents an increase in revenue, given that I'm sure your millage is more than the 23 mill chargeoff. The reason your state share is less than 5k is your chargeoff, btw.

The other issue we are having is talking about two things as if they are one. I'm talking about the operating budget, while you are talking about capital improvements. Even if a PUD brings in a couple new classes (say, sixty kids) and even if that comes out to three new classes in the same grade level in the same building, what it means is that you need to hire three new teachers. Since sixty kids represents $5000 in state funding, plus whatever the new families represent in additional property taxes (and of course taxes are paid by the folks without kids, whose kids aren't yet school age, who choose private school, etc.) in the end, the kids should pay for themselves.

Except when you run out of physical space. But then you are talking about capital improvements, which is a different budget. (And when you are talking in economic terms, that's an increase in fixed costs, but let's not get too quibbly there. We know what each other is talking about which is why I brought marginal costs into the discussion.)

The need for new construction is a big part of the squeeze that high growth and high value districts face. When you talk about your taxes going up, what you are doing is building the town -- schools, sewers, water system, etc. -- for the future residents. If you think it's bad now, imagine what things would be like if the State didn't have the Facilities Commission. That's why pre-DeRolph, kids were stuck in trailers for years.

Pho said...

By the way, thanks to both Paul and Eric for a great discussion. It's a lot easier to appreciate the special challenges that the funding system poses for growing communities when some one I know -- if only virtually - is explaining how it affects them personally.

Paul said...

Pho:

Although I am do not know the precise mechanism that caps the state funding to our district, I can assure you that it is indeed capped. Here is a chart published by the Columbus Dispatch as part of an excellent series they ran on school funding in Ohio. Bottom line is that new kids keep showing up, and our state support remains the same. Our commercial tax base is showing signs of growth, but we’re digging out of hole in that regard. All the new money is coming from residents.

I’m not making any distinction between operating costs and capital costs (and again, I do understand the difference) because my tax bill goes up regardless of which component grows. In the case of capital expenses, we get zero assistance from the State. In fact, there is an interesting nuance with capital levies: They are designed to recover a fixed amount of money from the tax base: the amount required to pay semiannual interest payments on the construction bonds they sold, and to build up the sinking fund in preparation for redeeming the bonds at their maturity. As more parcels are created in the tax district, the fixed amount required to service the debt remains the same, causing the assessment per parcel to diminish. It would be so much better if new residents could be assessed an amount that is accumulated toward the cost of construction of the next building (e.g. impact fees).

I have managed organizations with annual operating budgets over $250M and capital budgets north of $100M annually, so numbers of this magnitude aren’t novel to me. And I know how to smell a rat, and we’ve got some in our little town. I’m not asking the State to send us more money. We just want some weapons to use against the developers who are getting rich then leaving town. One idea is to make them pay up front for any new school buildings, just as they are required to do for other components of the community infrastructure like roads and sewers (e.g. Tax Increment Financing deals).

I’ve not really pondered whether the developers would be for or against GIRFOF. I think it might depend on how mature the housing market is in their territory, and how much growth is going on. The best thing in the world for a developer is for a big district to go bad and prompt a mass migration to another district that was formerly not so good. So if I were Dominion Homes, I’d be buying up cheap land in a poor district, then do what I could to get the State to take money away from the big districts and give it to a little district so it can become the next ‘great place to live.’

Eric said...

Regarding guarantee districts:

Yes, my district receives about $10M, or 20% of its budget through the guarantee. Very roughly (because I've forgotten the exact calibration) it takes the revenue from 3 new homes to cover the costs of the kids from the first new home. We are not yet considered "high growth," but even when we come off the guarantee, state revenue won't be much higher. (e.g. like $35M, or ADM times $5K).

Regarding state contribution of $5k per pupil, I thought this was a graduated nunmber which for us would be less than $10M/7000 (state aid divided by total ADM), hence we get the guaranteed $10M state portion rather than our graduated state per pupil pittance. Perhaps this was mostly speculative gap-filling conjecture on my part.

If public interest law firms wanted to limit sprawl, model policies for phased development and legal representation to communities that comply with those policies would be helpful. Lawyers that support property rights on behalf of developers are next-of-kin to the ones who hide predatory lending terms in credit card agreements. The results are simply not sustainable in either case. If you care about civic institutions, watching a developer/lawyer team threaten litigation is a prime opportunity to feel powerless and violated, especially when there is no budget for a defense.

Eric said...

Back to the issue at hand:

if school districts cannot advocate for GIRFOF...

Advocacy (as in "vote yes") is illegal; education is appropriate; but has anyone yet produced a high school level model lesson on the amendment? And does that mean all current endorsers are ignorant and/or deliberately miseducated?

That said, COAST's tactics are troubling. Giving them an easy win is as irresponsible as Dover, PA handing the ACLU/AU an easy win.

I would advocate consolidation at the SMSA (Standard Metropolitan Statistical Areas) level. ... many families in our community say they would move if our new high school zones force their kids to go to school with 'those people.'

If we establish a fundamental right to education, won't the NAACP have a stronger case to make this happen? How better to equalize access to the best teachers?