Fiscal panel begins work to rescue Liberty schools
By Robert Guttersohn
The Ohio Department of Education on Thursday introduced the fiscal commission charged with guiding the Liberty school district out of fiscal emergency.
The state placed the district under fiscal emergency July 11 after it failed to come up with a plan to close its deficit.
The commission comprises three local representatives and two designees from the state.
“Is [being in fiscal emergency] the end of the world? No it’s not,” said ODE Director of Financial Services Roger Hardin at the meeting. “Will it require changes? Yes it will.”
The commission’s chairman, Roger Nehls, designated by state Superintendent Stan Heffner, described the process as a “three-legged stool.”
First, he said the commission will determine the “size and nature” of the district’s fiscal problems.
Second, it will examine daily operations to see where savings can be had. After that, the commission will examine what deficit remains and explore options for increasing revenue or state aid.
He said the process of a district’s coming out of fiscal emergency normally takes about three to four years.
Liberty is the 36th school district to be placed under fiscal emergency since the process was made law in 1996. Since then, 28 districts have moved out of the designation.
“The process we have in place does work,” Hardin said. “The more cooperation there is, the less time you’ll spend in fiscal emergency.”
The commission has the power to “assume the powers of the school board” and to “make changes to the collective-bargaining agreement” only for financial reasons, according to Hardin.
The commission can remove the superintendent and treasurer if they are not “forthcoming” with information.
“My philosophy has always been to be the least invasive as possible going into a school district as long we’re continuing to move toward the target collectively,” said Nehls, who has led eight fiscal commissions in Ohio. The commission would “become more engaged and more controlling when it doesn’t appear that everyone is pulling together.”
He said friction between school districts and fiscal commissions stems from blame and denial from the district.
Board of Education President Diana Devito said the board already has moved past denial and blame.
“The board is in the recovery stage already,” she said but repeated that cutting costs is not the only solution.
In the past, the board has said the community will not support a levy. But she hopes now that if the three other locals on the fiscal commission say the district needs a levy, the community will support one.
“I hope this will add credibility to our efforts.”
The board includes Kristen Rock, a Liberty parent appointed by state superintendent; William Reali, local accountant appointed by the county auditor; and Patrick Ungaro, Liberty Township administrator appointed by the governor. Sharon Hanrahan, representative of the state Office of Budget and Management, is the fifth person on the panel.
The commission will meet in the high school’s community room Aug. 31 and Sept. 14, both at 11 a.m. The sessions are open to the public.