Published: Sunday, December 24, 2006
Oversight panel to work on schools plan
The commission has the power to override the public's vote and can impose a tax.
By HAROLD GWIN
YOUNGSTOWN Roger Nehls believes there are three pieces to a solution for getting school districts out of fiscal emergency: day-to-day belt-tightening, finding reductions in spending and finding additional resources.
Nehls, chairman of the state fiscal oversight commission appointed to help the city school district rid itself of a budget deficit, said the first piece doesn't usually save much, but it does create a mindset for spending control in a district.
The second pinpoints where substantial cuts can be made to help return to solvency, he said, while the third is "almost always a critical factor." A district can seldom wipe out a deficit just by cutting staff and programs, he said, adding that to cut that deeply could destroy a district's educational efforts.
Youngstown schools ran up a
$2 million deficit in the fiscal year that ended June 30 and is looking at $10.7 million in red ink this year.
The deficits, combined with Youngstown's inability to put together a recovery plan the state found acceptable, prompted the Ohio auditor of state to put the district into fiscal emergency. That automatically triggered the appointment of a Financial Planning and Supervision Commission to oversee the district's fiscal recovery as quickly as possible.
The process usually takes about three years.
Voters turned down levy
Youngstown attempted to speed up that process on its own before the fiscal emergency was declared by the state, asking voters to approve a temporary 9.5-mill tax levy in November, but the public turned it down.
Additional revenue is traditionally part of a recovery plan, Nehls said, although it is too early to tell how much additional revenue Youngstown will need and how it should be achieved.
School officials have said they are prepared to put a levy issue on the ballot again but want to see how the development of a recovery plan goes first.
The commission has the power to override the public's vote and can impose a tax increase to help restore a district to solvency.
By law, the commission has 120 days to devise a recovery plan that is acceptable to the state. That timeline means a plan will have to be ready by about March 26, Nehls has said.
It is the commission's desire to work with the district to create that plan, he said, pointing out that the district still has to function once the commission leaves.
Dr. Wendy Webb, Youngstown superintendent, has been asked to start looking at staffing and where cuts can be made with the least disruption of the educational process, Nehls said.
It's better to have the district come up with those reductions than have the commission impose cuts, he said.
Although Nehls said the recovery effort will be a partnership, the commission has taken action to make it clear who is calling the final shots.
It has passed a half-dozen resolutions to assume full power in the district, requiring that the board of education and administration submit all hirings, contracts and subsequent contract negotiations to the commission for approval.
It also has asked the auditor of state to certify the size of Youngstown schools' deficit, a detailed financial examination process that gives the commission an independent look at where the district sits financially, Nehls said.
What's been done
The superintendent has also been asked to provide some details on the $8.5 million in spending cuts and 100 jobs eliminated in this fiscal year as part of the district's own recovery effort.
That information needs to be included in the baseline financial picture, Nehls said.
Also important is a Youngstown staffing analysis being done by the Ohio Department of Education which will give the commission some basis for comparison with state staffing mandates and the size of staffs in other similar school districts, he said.
The commission also has the authority to reduce staff, regardless of existing contracts.
The commission is operating short of one member.
It is required to have five, but Gov. Bob Taft, who has one appointment, has not named anyone to the panel, leading to speculation that the incoming governor, Ted Strickland, will be responsible for making that appointment. Nehls said he hopes to have the fifth member on board by the next commission meeting Jan. 19.