Youngstown schools system making progress on budget

By Bertram de Souza

A $10.38 million operating deficit certainly doesn’t qualify as good news, but considering that the figure is about $5 million less than the year before does give reason to hope.

But even with this slight progress, the Youngstown City School District remains in state-mandated fiscal emergency.

Indeed, the district will have to borrow the $10.38 million from the state. It already has borrowed $15 million to cover the deficit in fiscal 2007, half of which is being repaid this fiscal year, which ends June 30. The rest will be repaid in fiscal 2009.

All this juggling of money points to a stark reality: The Youngstown schools system cannot cut its way out of the fiscal crisis.

But that’s not from lack of trying.

“The district is really biting the bullet with staff reductions,” says Roger Nehls, chairman of the state Financial Planning and Oversight Commission. Three hundred jobs have been cut and an additional 140 are expected to be eliminated next year.

However, there are developments beyond the control of the district that are impacting the budget, such as the loss of 322 pupils who chose to go to charter schools, open enrollment schools or voucher schools. The loss meant $1.6 million less in state funding to the district last year.

There also is the reduction of $372,000 in local real estate tax revenue.

New revenue

Nehls, who received the latest budget-deficit estimate from the Ohio Auditor of State’s office this week, is unwavering in his contention that the district cannot recovery fiscally without an infusion of new revenue. He strongly supports the 9.5-mill levy that voters will be asked to approve in November.

But considering that the tax increase has been rejected three times, most recently in March, the board of education and the administration have just six months to persuade the voters in the school district that all the personnel cuts that can be made are, in fact, being made.

It is a matter of perception, and today there still are many city residents who believe the system is top heavy and that administrative positions can be eliminated without negatively impacting academics.

Being under state-mandated academic watch means the board of education must be careful how cuts affect what is going on in the classroom. The district is trying to improve its state proficiency test scores so it would qualify for continuous improvement status.

District officials are taking comfort in the fact that in the March primary the levy lost by 1,079 votes, compared with a 1,821-vote defeat last November and a 2,138-vote loss in November 2006.

But it would be a mistake to believe that there is a trend toward passage. In the coming general election, voter turnout could be at an all-time high because of the presidential contest.

The school board and individuals involved in the campaign for the school levy should conduct a district wide campaign with the goal of reaching voters who may be going to the polls for the first time.

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