Liberty schools face fiscal woes, possible demise

Published: Sat, October 20, 2012 @ 12:09 a.m.

By danny restivo


If the board of education cannot make an additional $1.3 million in budget cuts, the Liberty Local School District may face dissolution.

Despite that threat, school board President Joseph Nohra Jr. said the board cannot make any additional reductions from the $14 million budget without hampering student outcomes.

Nohra believes further cuts would leave a 30-1 student-teacher ratio.

“You can’t cut your way out of this problem,” said Nohra. “I’m against taking away opportunities from children that other adjacent school districts have.”

He said open enrollment and school-choice programs have created losses in revenue — about $1.7 million annually — and future budget reductions would make the situation worse.

Board Vice President David Malone agreed.

“We are running bare bones here, and ultimately it’s the students who are going to pay,” Malone said.

Paul Marshall, chairman of the state-appointed Liberty Local financial planning and supervision commission — which ordered the board to make budget reductions by the end of the year — said if the board doesn’t make those cuts, the commission could remove the board and take over as the decision-making body.

He said if the school board can’t maintain a functioning district, dissolving the school would be a possibility.

Marshall said dissolution would require voter approval, and he hopes a collaborative effort with the board will prevent that action.

“If we can do this together, it works a lot better,” said Marshall. “I’m still hoping that we can work this process out.”

The Ohio Department of Education assigned the financial oversight commission to the district after it was placed in fiscal emergency in July 2011. The commission approves all district financial decisions.

In January, the board unanimously approved a $1.2 million deficit-reduction plan that eliminated 16.5 full-time equivalent jobs.

Nohra said the next round of cuts would target sports activities, school transportation and teachers.

Superintendent Stan Watson said the issue isn’t that the board is simply refusing to make the cuts, but that the requested reductions will leave the district with limited resources for students.

“I don’t think you can cut the amount of money on top of what has already been cut,” he said.

Along with pending cuts, the district started contract negotiations with its teachers union last month. The current contract expired in 2008, but was extended twice.

Marshall said all districts reach a point when they can no longer reduce spending. He said most districts turn to the community and ask for money.

“This district has serious problems,” Marshall said. “At some point, they have to ask voters for revenue, and the voters are going to have to make the decision.”

Nohra, who will become superintendent of the Struthers School District in December, believes getting residents’ approval for additional money is unlikely.

He said Liberty already has high property taxes. He said with the large amount needed to make the district solvent again, passing a levy doesn’t seem feasible.

“It would take a 10-mill levy to make us soluble again,” said Nohra. “We don’t feel entirely comfortably going to the voters and asking them to bail us out.”

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