VINDY EXCLUSIVE | Auditor: Schools could consolidate in face of population drops

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The Mahoning County Auditor’s office has compiled financial data for 14 public school districts in the county. The Vindicator added Trumbull County schools to expand the comparisons.

Vindicator Editorial Board - Ralph Meacham, Mahoning County Auditor

Vindy Live Event | Published: August 7, 2019 at 4:08 p.m.

Expecting Mahoning County school districts will continue to face budget constraints due to the region’s declining and aging population, Auditor Ralph Meacham recommended districts consider consolidating — an issue that requires a lot of buy-in from neighboring communities, school administrators said.

From a business perspective, it could be considered “right-sizing,” Meacham told The Vindicator editorial board Wednesday.

“If it makes more sense for some of these [districts] to join together, it makes more sense to consolidate,” Meacham said, asking rhetorically: “Is the function here to employ adults or to educate children?”

In a report, first published by The Vindicator July 22, Canfield schools was the only public school district in Mahoning or Trumbull counties to see an increase in the number of full-time or otherwise eligible students living within its boundaries from 2014 to 2018, according to Ohio Department of Education data. Average daily membership declined in all other districts over those four years, the data show.

The five-county Mahoning and Shenango valleys in Ohio and Pennsylvania lost a combined 3,486 people, according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics released last year. The year prior, it lost 6,384 people.

Yet, while student populations are going down, there is little taxpayer relief, Meacham said.

“The cost of operating our schools is going up every year for our taxpayers,” Meacham said. “More people are becoming delinquent on their [property] taxes. Does that sound sustainable to you?”

Of the more than 60 active taxing districts in Mahoning County, 20 have recently enacted new tax levies, Meacham said. He said he feels county taxpayers aren’t paying enough attention to the public school landscape, and should start considering its sustainability.

Youngstown City Schools lost 3.52 percent of its average eligible students from 2014 to 2018, according to ODE. Though the data show that’s one of the lowest declines among Mahoning County districts, the district also employs about one administrator for every 81 students, the lowest ratio among the county’s largest districts.

Meacham added the district also owns school buildings it doesn’t even use anymore.

“We’re open to learning more about the auditor’s suggestion,” said Denise Dick, district spokeswoman. “At this point though, we’re committed to keeping our school district intact.”

Other school administrators who spoke to The Vindicator were less receptive to Meacham’s proposal.

“In my opinion, it’s not the county auditor’s position to make recommendations to local school systems when it comes to consolidation,” said Alex Geordan, Canfield superintendent. “I feel it’s a community decision whether someone gets supported or not.”

To that end, Meacham suggested more citizen involvement on boards.

“I think it has to start with a degree of activism on the taxpayer-level,” he said. “Pay attention to who’s on the school board. We need people who are advocates of children — certainly on school boards. We need people who are advocates of taxpayers and want the best.”

First-year Austintown Superintendent David Cappuzzello spent his previous eight years heading up Girard City Schools in Trumbull County, which has 20 school districts — two of which lost about 21 percent of their membership from 2014 to 2018, according to ODE, and a couple of which have been graduating fewer students, he said.

Cappuzzello said the biggest hurdle to school consolidation isn’t just reconciling the districts’ finances — which could include outstanding debt — but reconciling neighboring communities’ attitudes toward their local school systems.

“You’re going to have so many differences. It has to be a good fit between the two districts,” he said. “They’re going to have to share the same ideals, share the same voting history, maybe, have the same interests in the schools for it to work right away.”

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