Trumbull school districts wisely study shared services
The Liberty, Brookfield and Mathews school districts are not unlike the vast majority of the 34 distinct school systems in Mahoning and Trumbull counties.
Many of them have student enrollment levels well below 2,500, the number studies have determined is optimal when it comes to achieving maximum cost efficiencies.
Many of them continue to see enrollment projections zoom steadily southward.
Many of them also continue to see funding from the state decline.
And many of them are finding it increasingly burdensome to balance operating budgets and ensure optimal educational quality without resorting to repeated appeals to local voters to shell out more property- or income-tax dollars to finance basic school operations.
As a result, many districts throughout the Mahoning Valley and the state have been forced to find creative strategies to minimize costs without harming the integrity of their educational programs.
Toward that end, we’re pleased to see that officials in the Liberty, Brookfield and Mathews districts have taken the lead in taking advantage of a new service offered by the Ohio Auditor’s Office to study the feasibility and cost savings associated with sharing services across district lines.
That service results from House Bill 5, legislation approved by the state General Assembly in late 2016 that authorizes Auditor Dave Yost and his staff to conduct feasibility studies on behalf of local government units – including public school districts – interested in improving services while cutting costs by combining resources with other school systems.
The feasibility study had its pilot test last year, when auditor Yost’s office conducted a seven-month review to determine whether and how schools in Belmont County could save money on transportation maintenance.
The results of that study, issued this spring, concluded that several districts in that county would improve efficiency and save hundreds of thousands of dollars by combining bus-maintenance services.
POTENTIAL SERVICE-SHARING GAINS
The study envisioned by the three contiguous Trumbull County school districts is expected to explore cost savings associated with consolidating transportation, administrative staffing and food services.
Given the potential benefits of such economies of scale, we encourage boards of education in all of those districts to approve resolutions requesting the study as expeditiously as possible.
The results of that study could well bring an assortment of tangible pluses for all parties involved.
Shared services could result in lessening the burden placed on individual taxpayers.
Shared services could result in helping to stabilize the budgets of cash-strapped districts and in lessening the chances of any of them falling into fiscal watch or fiscal emergency from the state and thereby losing a fair degree of local control.
And shared services could conceivably allow more financial resources to be targeted directly toward student curriculum and other enhancements in any district’s primary mission of educating children.
Note that the course that Liberty, Brookfield and Mathews is pursuing is relatively narrow in scope and not akin to wholesale district consolidation. Loss of community identity and school district pride have long fired up strident opposition to mergers of local governments and school systems throughout the Valley.
Witness the uproar last year when even the thought of studying a merger between the Girard and Liberty fire departments was raised – and quickly dropped.
Or consider the lack of traction from a proposal we supported several years ago from the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber. It encouraged all school districts in Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana counties to consider falling under one central administrative office per county rather than operating dozens of duplicated district administrative teams.
The consolidation of services envisioned by House Bill 5 represents a much less comprehensive approach, but it does present a viable and valuable start to realize savings through economies of scale.
With so many potential strategic gains possible from the Trumbull study, we encourage state auditor reviewers to conduct it as comprehensively but as quickly as possible.
We also encourage the many other school districts and local governments throughout the Valley facing similar budgetary constraints to follow the lead of the forward-thinking officials in Liberty, Brookfield and Mathews by exploring the benefits of sharing services.