Official: Schools faring better

Health-care insurance savings are substantial, the schools treasurer said.
AUSTINTOWN -- The school district's financial picture is looking brighter this year, at least in the short term, because cutbacks helped keep the district in the black.
The district's five-year forecast shows a positive balance in 2007 of more than 3 million. The balance is almost 1.7 million for 2008.
In fiscal years 2009 through 2011, there are projected deficits of about 1.8 million, 6.6 million and 12.4 million.
School district treasurer Barb Kliner said last week, however, that it is impossible to predict for certain where the district will be financially beyond two years. Nonetheless, the state requires a five-year forecast, which Kliner updates frequently. The latest figures are from Oct. 10.
"I'm only comfortable talking about this year and next year," she said. "The state only budgets for two years. For me to tell you what exactly we'll be like in 2008 and 2009 -- there are variables. We're opening a new building. We're rerouting our buses and moving other kids to Frank Ohl [Middle School]. We're trying to make a decision on all-day every-day kindergarten. There is a cost associated with that."
In the near future, cutbacks are keeping the district solvent despite not having any new tax money to work with since 1996, Kliner said.
How money was saved
A rehire-retire program begun last year, in which teachers retire then come back to teach on two limited one-year contracts and with no benefits, has saved the district 1 million so far, she said.
Shopping for a new insurance consortium and going with one in Stark County saved the district 900,000 a year, she said.
Teaching and nonteaching employees also agreed last year to pay a portion of the health-care premium, which will mean even more savings, she said.
Transportation cuts last year saved the district 200,000. All of the cutbacks contributed to a 2.7 million budget carryover into this year, she said.
As for the long run? Kliner said she tries to predict beyond 2008 based on previous numbers and inflation. There are other factors as well.
"We don't spend a lot of money on capital improvements, so I budgeted conservatively there. As the staff gets older, they get step increases, and people advance educationally. A bachelor's to master's [degree] costs more. But I don't know how many teachers we're going to have. And we need to seriously look at our enrollment projections. We just kind of wait for everyone to show up," she said.
Matter of concern
Kliner is also concerned over the state's doing away with a tax on business inventory beginning this year. School districts received a portion of the tax. Called the tangible personal property tax, it is being phased out, though legislation called House Bill 66 is supposed to reimburse school districts for their losses through 2011. Those reimbursements will be phased out beginning in 2012.
For Austintown, the tax accounted for 2.7 million a year. Kliner is worried that the state may even decide not to give the reimbursements if money gets tight in Columbus. Even if that doesn't happen, the money is slowly going away, she said. To make up for it, the district will need more money or more cutbacks. At this time, she said, she is not recommending a levy for the May ballot.
Kliner said there are ways to meet the future with a little more certainty.
A state performance audit that is looking at the district's policies and procedures in finance, human resources, transportation, building and grounds and food services will help in deciding which courses of action to take, she said. The audit results are due around the end of December.
There is also a curriculum audit under way right now, and the district is going to prepare a strategic plan.
"So we'll have a lot of data in the next six months, and we can work on those deficits out there in that five-year forecast," she said.

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