Deficit-ridden Niles schools back in fiscal watch
By Jordan Cohen
Niles City Schools finds itself in a painfully familiar situation after Thursday’s announcement by state Auditor Dave Yost that the district, which faces a $7.4 million deficit by 2021, has returned to fiscal watch.
The school system spent 13 years in fiscal watch before emerging in 2016 only to be placed in the less severe category of fiscal caution last September. Two months later, voters rejected a 9.25-mill levy to generate $2 million by an overwhelming 70 percent margin and then turned thumbs down last month on a 5.85 mill issue that would have raised $1.3 million.
Conditions for fiscal watch include a threat to solvency and the failure to pass a tax levy to eliminate the deficit in a succeeding year.
“We couldn’t provide a [recovery] plan to get out from under a negative balance after our two levies failed,” said city schools Superintendent Ann Marie Thigpen, who was not surprised by Thursday’s announcement. “Now we have to submit a recovery plan that will give us positive balances for the first three years.”
The board of education has 60 days to submit the plan to the Ohio Department of Education. Thigpen said the district hopes to reduce one of its biggest expenses, health care, through negotiations with its two unions: the Niles Education Association and the Ohio Association of Public School Employees. NEA represents 187 teachers while OAPSE is the bargaining unit for 89 nonteaching employees. Contracts with both expire August 31, 2019.
Thigpen declined to divulge specifics about the health care provisions the district is targeting. A message seeking comment from Richard Sprague, NEA president, was not returned Thursday.
“We’re up against a wall here,” said Susan Giannetti Longacre, board of education president. “I would hope we would get enough cooperation from both units to prevent us from being placed in fiscal emergency.”
That designation would place district control in the hands of a commission that “may assume all or part of the powers of the board of education” according to the state auditor’s website. The city of Niles has been in a similar situation since fiscal emergency was declared in October 2014. All finances are reviewed by state auditors and a fiscal commission.
Last April, Yost released the results of a performance audit that he said could save the school district $3.4 million annually.
The audit recommends the elimination of 18 positions, more than 10 of them teachers; contract restructuring; and substantially reducing the district’s health and vision insurance costs.
“There are so many items in there that go with contract language, but I don’t feel comfortable saying we have to do everything in the performance audit,” Thigpen said. “We always want to look at items that have the least amount of impact on children.”