Youngstown schools system facing a challenging future

Just when it seemed that the em- battled Youngstown City School District had weathered the worst of the financial and academic storms, it was hit with a lightning bolt that has jeopardized its future.

The Ohio Department of Education recently informed Superintendent Connie Hathorn that the district will lose $4 million in funding from the state. The reason: The loss of more than 500 students, as determined by the official October enrollment count.

In the public education system in Ohio, the money follows the student. That’s why charter schools, vouchers and open enrollment have caused such upheaval in the mainline systems. Youngstown, with its systemic problems, has been especially hard hit.

The loss of the $4 million, in addition to the past reductions in state per-student funding, means Youngstown must again ride out stormy weather.

The first casualty was the proposed renewal of the school levy that is set to expire at the end of this year. Superintendent Hathorn and the board of education had determined that with the district’s finances finally stable — fiscal emergency, which was imposed by the state auditor in 2006, was lifted last year — there was no need for the entire amount generated by the tax. They, therefore, proposed a renewal and reduction in amount generated. The levy was to have been on the March 6 primary ballot, but as a result of the $4 million shortfall, the board of education decided to pull the issue.

The second casualty could be the education of the students. The superintendent told the Academic Distress Commission — it has been in place since January 2010 after the district was declared in academic emergency — last week that everything is now on the table as a result of the state funding loss. Everything includes the possible closing of schools.

“We need to look at enrollment, staffing and make adjustments wherever we can,” Hathorn said. “We want to put everything on the table for the community.”

The closing of any school in the district will have far-reaching ramifications. For one thing, the state and district have spent hundreds of millions of dollars building new schools and renovating others. For another, Hathorn has developed a new academic strategy that promises improved results in the state proficiency tests.

Ultimate responsibility

But because the academic distress commission has ultimate responsibility for the district’s recovery, we have called on state Superintendent Hefner to be directly involved in what’s going on. He has made it known that the district does not have the luxury of continued academic mediocrity. The superintendent wants to see the system earn a continuous improvement designation — it is now at academic watch — in the next report card.

The loss of $4 million has forced Hathorn and the board of education, as well as the academic distress commission, to explore all options, including the closing of schools.

In his State of the State address recently, Gov. John Kasich said that public education in Ohio will be his top priority this year. He talked about how some districts are excelling academically, while others are having trouble making the grade.

The Ohio Department of Education must use all its resources to help the Youngstown district ride out the storm.

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