The situation wouldn't be surprising if this were, say, East Cleveland, where poverty makes crisis a steadfast companion. But we're talking about Strongsville, a district that covers one of the most affluent areas of Cuyahoga County. A district that residents seem hell-bent on destroying.
The reason: They're cheap. Breathtakingly cheap. If you want to pry a nickel loose in Strongsville, come equipped with a backhoe and C-4 explosives.
For the past eight years, the district has gone without a tax increase for operational expenses. Superintendent Dennis Kowalski says it's akin to "going without a raise for eight years."
So two years ago, it put a tax increase on the ballot. The district had a solid case to make. Its students were bringing home among the highest ACT and SAT scores in the county. Graduation rates were impressive, as were scores on the nefarious proficiency tests.
At the same time, the district was operating on the cheap. It ranks 24th out of the county's 31 districts in per-pupil spending. Its maximum teacher salary is dead last. And though administrative salaries appear a bit high, it still ranks No. 1 in the percentage of money spent on instruction.
In short: It was doing a helluva job with relatively little money. It had earned the right to ask for more. And with one of the lowest school taxes in the county, coupled with some of the highest household incomes -- only Chagrin Falls, Beachwood, and Orange rate higher -- people could afford it.
Unfortunately, asking Strongsville to provide for kids is like asking Slobodan Milosevic to contribute to the Albanian Children's Fund.
The levy failed. As did a second levy. Then a third.
Now, says Treasurer David Mattingly, the district may soon be taken over by the state if it can't balance its budget.
The situation seems incongruous with the affluence that is Strongsville. Take a trip down Royalton Road, and you'll witness a who's who of the biggest and best in American retail. It all has the feel of freshly minted prosperity.
Farther south, you'll find subdivisions with names like Sherbrooke Colony, Hampton Chase, Waterford Crossing -- names that by law should be pronounced with a British accent. The driveways hold a Lexus for Dad, a minivan for Mom, a sports car for Junior. Trees flower in pinks and whites, and the homes are large enough that residents call a cab to get from kitchen to bedroom.
Elsewhere, there remain strips of postwar boxes, which housed families back when this was countryside. A fiftyish woman, saddled at the counter of the Donut Scene, where she takes her morning constitutional of cigs and coffee, remembers when Strongsville was farmland. "You didn't have grocery stores or nothing."
She says she's a machinist. She won't give her name. But she will talk about taxes, which fall firmly under the category of "pretty damn ridiculous." She pays $2,000 a year on her place. Can't afford more.
And she says the people off Drake Road, the newcomers in the attempted colonials, can't afford more either. "These people buy these houses out of their range. They barely make it."
It's a common belief in Strongsville, that people swarmed here for safety, open space, and good schools -- the holy trinity of suburban pursuit. But though they make big money, they bite into even bigger debt. In other words, they're morons.
One district employee tells of the mother who called to apologize for not backing the levy. She has kids in school, she said, but she was living in a "modest" $300,000 home. Obviously, her pockets were empty.
Other residents hide behind generic complaints. Says Sharie Kassay, president of the district's support staff union: "Sometimes I think people don't know what to say, so they just say there's too many administrators, because they don't want to pass the levy for financial reasons."
There is credence to such whining. The district houses 7,000 students, and large bureaucracies always harbor waste. That's why they call them bureaucracies. But by every measure -- including a state audit -- the district is performing well with a spartan budget. Even Kassay, whose job is to lay bare inequities between boss and worker bee, doesn't think the system is top-heavy. "I don't believe we have too many administrators. I don't think administrators are paid too much."
Which leads to one conclusion: Strongsville is cheap, right? "You said that, I didn't," says Superintendent Kowalski. "In my position, I can't say that."
But is it a legitimate question? "Yeah, probably," responds Mattingly.
Of course it is, because it's true. Residents here will spend money -- lots of money -- on themselves. They just won't spend it on others. Not even to better their children.
There's a theory on life that goes like this: Someone took care of you when you were young. Someone's bound to take care of you when you're old. So in the meantime, you should be taking care of someone else -- especially if you have the means to do so. It's what's right. It's what decent people do. Anyone who says otherwise might best be described as A) a leech; B) a stiff; C) a narcissistic piece of %&*#; or D) all of the above.
If you chose D, you were likely thinking about the good people of Strongsville.