By Jordan Cohen
Representatives of the Ohio Department of Education say they will be quite clear about the severity of the deficit facing the Mathews schools when they address the board of education at its next regular meeting Wednesday.
“Our message is, ‘You need to address this,’” said Scott Bennington, ODE director of finance program services. “We’re there to help people understand this is a serious financial problem.”
The board of education has a five-year, 4.65-mill levy on the Nov. 6 ballot that, if approved, would generate $680,000 each year according to Brian Stidham, Mathews treasurer. Stidham’s five-year forecast, which projects a deficit of more than $3 million by 2017, spurred the board’s decision to submit the levy to voters.
“If it passes, there will not be a deficit, and we will be in the black by just $3,089 at the end of the five years,” Stidham said. “If the levy fails, the deficit will be $775,000 by the end of fiscal year 2014.”
Stidham said voter rejection would mean a deficit of $75,000 in 2013, a figure that Bennington described as “manageable.” However, if the deficit still is projected by next May, the ODE will act.
Bennington said that ODE could declare a “fiscal caution,” which he described as a tool to spur the community and school board to develop a plan to alleviate the deficit. “If they are in caution, they would have to do all the little things they need to do to stay solvent by the end of 2013,” Bennington said.
If the levy fails and the district cannot come up with any alternatives to eliminate the deficit, ODE will inform the state auditor who will order the district either under fiscal watch or, in a worst-case scenario, fiscal emergency. Declaration of the latter would place district finances under a financial planning and supervision commission for an indefinite period as currently is the case with the Liberty Local School District.
Bennington said that ODE has conducted a staffing analysis of Mathews, but the director declined to disclose the results. Superintendent Lewis Lowery said he also has not seen the report, but is concerned about the findings, which will be made public during the meeting.
“It’s my perception the state may have some issues with staffing, but I don’t know for sure,” Lowery said.
Lowery, who has been superintendent for less than a year, said he senses “some distrust” among the voters but hopes that Wednesday’s meeting will help to alleviate it.
“This is our effort to share information with the community,” Lowery said. “Transparency is important to us, and I’m hoping we have a good turnout.”
The board plans to have an executive session at 6 p.m. Wednesday with the meeting and the state presentation expected to begin at 7 p.m. in the high-school cafeteria.