The good news is that after two years of having a state commission oversee its finances, the Jackson-Milton School District is once again master of its own destiny. The better news is reflected in the comment Superintendent Warne Palmer made after state Auditor Jim Petro lifted the fiscal emergency in the district: "I think the challenge for us now ... is to develop a budget and live with it."
Adhering to a budget that matches revenues and expenditures is not only what Petro, who declared the emergency in 1998, expects of the school system, but it is also something voters in the district will be considering as they decide whether to renew a 9.9-mill emergency levy next year.
The levy, which was approved in May 1998 and generates $990,000 a year, will expire at the end of 2002. That revenue stream is important because it is one of the assumptions contained in Petro's financial forecast for the school district. The state auditor issued a positive five-year forecast, but he also made it clear that if the levy is not renewed, the school district could again be placed under state control.
Recovery plan: The challenge, therefore, is for the administration and members of the board of education to demonstrate to Columbus and to the Jackson-Milton voters that they are responsible stewards of the public treasury. The state commission, which was assigned the task of returning the district to financial stability after the emergency was declared, has developed a financial recovery plan that shows the district could operate without a deficit in each of the next five years. The commission has cut $300,000 from the operating budget since 1998.
Since the tough decisions have already been made, it's simply a matter of the superintendent and the board of education spending wisely.
Such prudent management of the public dollars would also enable school officials to more easily sell the idea of a new high school to the community. The school now in use was built in 1913 and is in need of repairs. Recently, an engineering firm was brought in to determine why some of the bricks in the walls looked as if they had been pushed out from the inside.
Capital improvement: The firm concluded that the exterior walls have sustained water damage and should be repaired or replaced. The report from Seidler Engineering Inc. has intensified the discussions about a new school and there is talk that voters may be asked next May to approve a bond issue to help pay for the construction. The new school could very well be a part of the district's capital improvements master plan which is being drawn up by a team of contractors hired by the Ohio Schools Facilities Commission.
Under the state's Expedited Local Partnership program, which is designed to bring Ohio's public schools up to state standards, the Jackson-Milton district would only have to pay 72 percent of the cost, while the state would kick in the rest.