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Liberty schools on the verge of shedding state’s shackles



Published: Sat, August 2, 2014 @ 12:00 a.m.

After three years of playing second fiddle to the state-mandated Liberty School District fiscal oversight commission, the board of education is finally getting its independence. Later this month, Ohio Auditor David Yost is expected to attend a meeting of the commission, chaired by Paul Marshall on behalf of the Ohio Department of Education, to formally release the school district from fiscal emergency.

In May 2011, with the district’s operating budget bleeding red ink, Yost issued a declaration of emergency, which then triggered a state statute requiring the appointment of an oversight commission to take over the finances.

As another school board in the Mahoning Valley found out, it isn’t easy to have every spending decision overseen by an outside panel. The Youngstown City School District was under fiscal emergency from 2006 to 2011, and during that time, school board members had to do the commission’s bidding.

It wasn’t a pleasant experience for individuals who believed that authority to manage the district’s finances could not be usurped because they were elected by the voters.

But, as they found out, the statutory powers granted to the commission trumped all. In the end, the red ink in the budget was eliminated, spending was brought under control and the five-year budget forecast, required by law, showed that the board and the administration understood what was required of them.

Having satisfied all the requirements for being released from fiscal emergency, the Youngstown school board regained control of the budget.

Yost was on hand to declare the emergency over.

END OF DIFFICULT JOURNEY

The auditor’s presence in Liberty on Aug. 27 will mark the end of a difficult financial journey that was made all the more intriguing by the state issuing findings for recovery of $278,000 from two former conversion schools within the school district.

Yost said that careless bookkeeping led to the findings in five audits from 2009 to 2012. The conversion schools were similar to charter schools but operated under the sponsorship of the public school district from 2009 to 2011.

Among the findings for recovery is $169,590 against Liberty schools and its former treasurer, Tracey Obermiyer.

But a new day has dawned for the district.

In the words of Superintendent Stan Watson, “It sure has been rough.” Nonetheless, the elimination of a $1.9 million deficit that caused the district to implode in 2011, the stabilizing of the budget and the development of a five-year forecast of revenues and expenditures hold out the promise of fiscal stability.

“The district’s been very cooperative,” the commission chairman Marshall noted. He had high praise for Watson and schools Treasurer Lori Simeon for doing what they had to.

On Wednesday, the commission voted to ask the state to release the district from fiscal emergency — two days after the board had taken a similar vote.

And when Yost comes to town and formally removes the shackles put on by the state, members of the school board will be solely responsible for keeping the district solvent.


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