Academic commission owes city taxpayers an explanation

2“In order to ensure a seamless transition, the new treasurer must have the same level of expertise and the same insight and foresight as the man who is leaving.”

When we expressed that opinion last month about Youngstown City School District Treasurer William Johnson’s impending departure, we had every reason to believe he had performed his difficult job with a high level of professionalism.

After all, there were no complaints about Johnson’s tenure from members of the board of education or from the state-mandated Academic Distress Commission that is guiding the district’s academic recovery.

Indeed, he received high praise from school officials for the way he conducted himself beginning in 2006, the year the Youngstown schools system was declared by the state to be in fiscal emergency.

We were, therefore, taken aback last week when we read that Johnson had been placed on paid administrative leave until July 31 when his contract expires and he retires.

The refusal of the chairwoman of the distress commission, Adrienne O’Neill, to provide an explanation for the action against the treasurer adds to our puzzlement.

The Youngstown City School District, which was the only district in the state in academic emergency and is now in academic watch, cannot afford to operate under a cloud of suspicion.

Indeed, the six years that the State Fiscal Oversight Commission controlled the district’s finances made clear that transparency is absolutely necessary. There can be no secrets when the public’s confidence in the urban school system has been shaken to the core.

Although Chairwoman O’Neill declined to give an explanation for Johnson’s being put on paid leave, a discussion at last week’s meeting of the commission revealed a startling development: the Youngstown district will not lose $4 million in state funding, as Johnson had projected because of the loss of students, but will be short $1 million.

In other words, reports of the system’s fiscal collapse were greatly exaggerated.

Johnson, who attended the commission meeting but left before the action against him was taken, said he based his projections of a $4 million revenue shortfall from the state on the student count provided by the district’s data department.

If that is so, did the commission attempt to confirm what Johnson had said about the student count? If not, why not?

Funding formula

Because state funding for primary and secondary education is based on student enrollment, the accuracy of the count is paramount. The ramifications of a decline in enrollment can be seen in the decisions the commission made with regard to increasing class sizes. Now, those decisions have to be revisited.

O’Neill and her colleagues are understandably upset about the latest turn of events, but it might work out for the best.

The search for a new treasurer by the board of education has yielded four finalists — the Ohio School Boards Association led the search — but the commission appears to favor a national effort.

Regardless of how Johnson’s replacement is found, the school board and the academic distress commission owe it to the taxpayers of the Youngstown district to explain why the treasurer has been placed on paid leave and an interim treasurer appointed.

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