BY Jordan Cohen
A report issued by State Auditor Dave Yost Thursday recommends that Niles City Schools cut 15 full-time positions and increase health care premiums paid by employees to 15 percent of costs to help the district save $1.3 million annually. The performance audit was issued at the request of the Ohio Department of Education after Niles projected a $2.9 million deficit by fiscal year 2016-2017. The district has been under fiscal watch since 2003.
The school board approved an employee reduction in force last year, but the auditor’s “Ohio Performance Team” that conducted the audit considers the savings insufficient.
The report recommends the district eliminate one teacher, two clerical employees, six support staff (counselors, librarians, etc.) and six members of the custodial and grounds staff — all full-time. It estimates annual savings in wages and benefits at more than $700,000.
The report says even more teaching cuts should be considered if the deficit persists. “The district could reduce up to 16 general education teachers and still meet state minimum requirements [but] …the district should consider the effects of such reductions on its educational programs,” it says.
The audit found that Niles schools pay significantly more for employee medical coverage than similar districts. The current contracts with the district’s two unions, the Niles Education Association and the Ohio Association of Public School Employees increased employee contributions to 6.9 percent of premium for a family plan and 8 percent for single coverage.
The audit concludes the increases are not enough and suggests that employees pay 15 percent of costs.
“[The school district’s] contributions toward its employee premiums for health care are in excess of those paid by other levels of government,” the audit states. “Establishing consistent premiums for all employees can assist the district in providing reasonable but cost-effective health care benefits.” The auditor estimates savings from the increase at $519,000 annually.
In addition, the audit recommends the district reduce what it describes as “costly provisions” in union contracts such as paid lunches and sick- leave payouts. It says renegotiations would save the schools $132,000 annually.
Niles “has worked hard to line up its expenses with its revenue,” Yost said in a news release. “Today’s report should help the district continue to do so.”
Interim Superintendent Frank Danso said he would reserve comment until he completes his review of the recommendations. However he did respond in a letter to the auditor Feb.14 that is published at the audit’s conclusion. Danso’s letter said the district “will continue to address” the employee medical payment issue and shares “the same concerns about the costly provisions” in the two union contracts.
“We would hope to use the information provided to us as a tool to discuss these items,” he wrote. Both union contracts expire in December.
Danso has been serving as interim superintendent since last October. His predecessor who negotiated the contracts, Mark Robinson, resigned last year after only 14 months on the job.
Messages seeking comment from representatives of the NEA and OAPSE unions Thursday were not returned.