Cincinnati Public Schools to seek $48 million yearly levy hike

Preschool Promise would get $15 million a year

CINCINNATI – Cincinnati Public Schools has reached a compromise with advocates for universal preschool on a combined $48 million annual increase to the school levy to dramatically expand preschool and fill a projected K-12 deficit.

The school board on Monday unanimously approved putting the levy on the November ballot.  

"For me, this allows all of Cincinnati to educate kids from preschool through high school graduation. How exciting is that?" Board Chairwoman Ericka Copeland-Dansby asked.

The district appears to have settled on funding preschool through CPS and private and charter preschools with a $15 million annual budget. That's less than Cincinnati Preschool Promise had hoped to raise to fully subsidize low-income families and partially subsidize everyone else on a sliding scale. 

But a source familiar with the preschool plan said, "The investment would expand access to thousands of 3- and 4-year-olds, with a focus on those children who need it the most, making it one of the most significant expansions in preschool in the nation."

A study of district finances that will be released at the school board meeting warns that CPS will run annual deficits of $30 million without new revenue.

That's after an additional $5 million to $10 million in cost cutting recommended by the report, according to the district, and does not include the extra $15 million needed annually for preschool. 

"Now that CPS enrollment is increasing again, we agree with the report's conclusion that there is a growing structural imbalance that requires additional revenue to continue the momentum of progress we're experiencing in our schools," CPS Treasurer Jennifer M. Wagner said.

Preschool Promise leaders were strongly considering a push for a city payroll tax increase to finance two years of universal preschool for children within the city limits, encouraged by polling that suggested voters would support that funding model.

Their vision was to fully subsidize preschool for low-income families and to subsidize preschool for middle-income families. While details of the compromise have not been revealed, the money would fund preschool at CPS schools and at private providers.

Tri-State business leaders balked at that idea over concerns that the payroll tax hike would make it harder for downtown businesses to recruit quality workers. They pushed instead for folding the preschool funding into the CPS school levy.

Some CPS officials were also hesitant to have separate preschool and CPS levies, fearing that the preschool levy could sap support from the K-12 levy.

The grand bargain allows both parties to advocate for a continuum of improved education, beginning with quality, affordable preschool that will boost kindergarten readiness, especially among children from low-income families.

The district has the good problem of having outgrown its current buildings thanks to five straight years of enrollment increases. That's a stark reversal of decades of decline that began in the late 1960s before bottoming out in 2011, and growth is projected to continue in the next two years.

CPS Rising

A decade ago, Ohio projected steady declines in Cincinnati Public Schools enrollment, but a 45-year slide reversed into steady growth starting in 2011:

• 32,335 enrolled in 2011-12

• 34,104 enrolled in 2015-16

• 35,112 projected enrollment in 2016-17.

CPS enrollment peaked in 1966-67 at 91,000 students, according to the Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies in Education.

Ohio lawmakers forced CPS to sell school buildings a decade ago to charter schools or other buyers when the state wrongly projected that the district would continue to shrink indefinitely.

As a result, CPS has overcrowded elementary schools, especially on the west side.

Children who enter kindergarten with the social, emotional and physical skills they need to begin learning and interacting with peers and teachers are far more likely to be reading at grade level by third grade. That, in turn, makes it far more likely that they continue keeping up with their school work and graduating high school.

The district will tout the improvements to K-12 education that the levy will bring, too, including an expansion of its My Tomorrow program that introduces more computer and high-tech learning to students.

"The public is going to be excited about what we have to offer our children," Copeland-Dansby said.

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