Youngstown schools get bad news regarding finances

It took one front-page headline to replace the optimism we voiced a couple of weeks ago about the Youngstown City School District with a growing sense of pessimism. The state-declared economic emergency that the district shed in 2011 after several years of fiscal commission governance could well be resurrected if the urban district does not get a handle on its five-year budget. As of today, things don’t look good for the academically and fiscally challenged system.

Here’s the headline that is the cause of our concern: “Schools’ deficit projected at $48 million/Hathorn proposes cuts to improve five-year forecast,” To be sure, we did a double-take when we saw the words “$48M.”

What happened to Ohio State Auditor David Yost’s positive outlook when he announced in March 2011 that the Youngstown schools system was being released from fiscal emergency?

Here’s what Yost said in a written statement: “Youngstown City Schools are leaner today than when they came into fiscal emergency in 2006. My office is proud to play a role in helping the school district skinny down and become financially healthy — and even prouder of what the district has done to accomplish it. This is a great day for Youngstown students.”

But today, the district’s future is bleak, forcing Superintendent Connie Hathorn and the board of education to come up with a plan to close the projected $48 million operating budget hole over the next four years.

While we believe that Dr. Hathorn and board members recognize that the district’s back is against the wall, we aren’t entirely confident that they have the wherewithal to tackle such an enormous challenge.

Help needed

Thus, we would urge Auditor Yost to send in his staffers who have spent years working on Youngstown’s finances to help the superintendent and the board chart a course through the choppy waters.

We seek the state’s involvement reluctantly. The return of auditors from Yost’s office could be viewed as an admission that local school officials lack the ability to deal with the fiscal challenges.

But that would be an unfair characterization of what’s going on.

Of the $48 million projected revenue shortfall, $40 million is being blamed on the loss of students to community schools, vouchers and open enrollment in adjoining school districts.

That is not good news.

If the Youngstown district is still losing a sizable number of students after the reorganization of the schools and the adoption of an academic recovery plan — the system is under state-mandated academic watch — the question must be asked: Is there anything that can be done to stop the exodus.

Superintendent Hathorn thinks so, but when he met with members of the state Academic Distress Commission, it appeared that he has an uphill battle winning them over. Hathorn detailed $8 million worth of savings by 2017, which prompted commissioner Michael Garvey, a prominent Mahoning Valley businessman, to ask, “What are you going to do for the other $40 million?”

What, indeed. Can a troubled urban school district survive when students continue to leave in droves even when the academic changes that have been implemented have received rave reviews from the Ohio Department of Education and other independent organizations?

The ODE has warned the Youngstown district that a takeover is possible if it fails to shows marked improvement in the state report card this year.

The ticking of the clock just got louder.

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