Youngstown school district must get handle on finances

When the president of the Youngstown Board of Education used the word “yet” in talking about the district’s finances — “We’re not out of the woods yet” — we wondered if he was indulging in a bit of wishful thinking.

Lock P. Beachum has been around public education in the city for many years, having served as an educator — he retired as principal of East High School — and a board member for more than a decade, which means nothing surprises him. However, the system’s ongoing financial turmoil has Beachum baffled.

He and his colleagues on the board must decide in the not-too-distant future the size of the replacement levy voters will be asked to approve in November. Make it too small, and the district could fall back into state-mandated fiscal emergency. But if the levy is too large, residents could rebel. The economy in the city of Youngstown is anything but muscular.

Beachum hopes the levy on the November ballot can be less than the 9.5 mills that voters approved in 2008; it expires at year’s end.

With the memory of fiscal emergency still fresh in people’s minds — it began in 2006 and ended in March 2011 — the board has the arduous task of figuring out how to deal with continuing revenue losses.

In the just completed school year, the district lost about $1 million — $3 million less than had been projected — and there is every expectation of further losses in the coming school year. Why? Because like just about every public school district in Ohio, charter schools and school vouchers have become a major drain on the treasuries.

Indeed, the problem, which isn’t only confined to urban systems, has become so acute that a public information campaign is being launched in this area.

The bottom line: Public money is being used to fund private education.

One of the questions organizers of the campaign hope to answer is, “How do we make our public schools schools of choice?”

The Youngstown school district is a prime example of the havoc the expansion of charter schools and vouchers is playing with public education in the state.

State funding for public education is based on a district’s total enrollment, or the number of students who live within the district, including those who attend other schools or district through open enrollment, vouchers or community schools. The student count conducted in the first week in October is a major factor. The student numbers change during the school year, which means state funding is fluid.

Workforce reduction

The Youngstown district has already slashed $4.1 million from its operating budget through retirements, reductions in force and some job eliminations, but board president Beachum says more cuts are in the offing.

However, he insists that academics must not be harmed. Youngstown is under state mandated academic watch and a commission has been charged with charting a course to continuous improvement on the state report card.

The state’s superintendent of public instruction, Stan Heffner, has taken a special interest in the Youngstown system and has met with every decision-maker in the district. He also has discussed the future of Youngstown schools with Mayor Charles Sammarone, a retired schoolteacher.

Heffner has made it clear that if the district does not attain a continuous improvement rating in next year’s report card, the state will step in and perhaps take control of the worst performing schools. They could become charter schools under state supervision.

Youngstown faces some monumental academic and fiscal challenges, and that means the board of education must have a clear understanding of the problems and a clear vision for the future.

As we’ve said in previous editorials, the clock is ticking and the state department of education is watching closely to determine if the district can survive in its current form.

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