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Education Job Losses a Guessing Game in Ohio

Ohio's John Kasich is one of number of governors proposing cuts in state aid to schools—reductions that some say could lead to big-time layoffs.

But Kasich's office disputes those dire estimates. And it would seem that predicting the scale of K-12 job losses in a state like Ohio, where several factors are in flux, is no easy thing. It's a sensitive topic, particularly given the fragile condition of the nation's economic recovery.

This week, I received an estimate from the Ohio Association of School Business Officials that as many as 12,200 school workers would lose their jobs over the next two years, in a worst-case scenario, if Kasich's budget goes through. The governor's spending plan would result in a net decrease of 5 percent to 6 percent below current levels over the next two years, when the loss of federal stimulus aid is included, the association told me last week. Kasich argues that his state, which has a total two-year budget of about $56 billion and faces an $8 billion estimated shortfall, needs to cut government spending and not raise taxes.

That job-loss projection was compiled by a consulting group, Driscoll & Fleeter, which does work for education organizations in the state, including the business officials' group. Howard Fleeter, an economist who provided me with the estimate, cautioned that the projection assumes the districts would not take other, alternate steps to avoid cutting jobs:

"This has to be treated as worst-case scenario rather than as an estimate of the likely effects of the budget cuts," he said in an e-mail. "Past experience has strongly suggested that Ohio school districts will take almost any other budget-cutting measure available before laying off teachers."

Rob Nichols, a spokesman for the governor, said the job-loss estimate is way off base, for a couple reasons.

He predicts that a controversial new law that Kasich supported, which curbs the collective bargaining rights of teachers and other public workers, will give districts the power to lower costs on pensions, health care, and in other areas—thus reducing the prospect of layoffs.

This week, Kasich's administration released estimates that the law would save districts around Ohio $1.3 billion annually on health care and salaries. Reductions in pensions would save an extra $230 million a year, according to a second analysis released today. (School employees, rather than districts, would be picking up those costs.)

"We are giving them the tools they can use, if they choose, to cope with the loss of revenue," Nichols told me.

The law would indeed appear to give district administrators a lot more sway in negotiations, and an ability to drive down costs. Of course, it remains to be seen how hard a bargain those officials are willing to drive with their teachers.

And keep in mind, it's possible that the collective bargaining law signed by Kasich might get stopped in its tracks. Opponents have launched an effort to overturn it.

Robert Sommers, a top education policy adviser to Kasich, told reporters in a conference call Friday that districts were likely to scour their budgets for other cuts before they went so far as to pursue layoffs, a point echoed by Nichols. Sommers also said projections of major school job losses (including one put forward by Innovation Ohio, a group that has been critical of Kasich's policies) are too high.

Critics of spending cuts "can make anything look draconian," he said. A school "that starts by cutting teachers is shortsighted."

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