Fiscal emergency requires discipline in Niles schools

Just about two weeks after voters in the Niles City School District threw caution to the wind and rejected a 5.6-mill, 10-year property tax renewal for the fiscally teetering system, Superintendent Ann Marie Thigpen was taken to task for spending money without authorization.

The flare-up during the meeting of the state-mandated financial planning and supervision commission makes clear the administration has yet to come to terms with the fact that state-declared fiscal emergency has necessitated a change in the way the district operates.

All budgeting and expenditures are subject to financial commission review and approval.

In addition, the commission will oversee the development of a five-year financial recovery plan that provides for a balanced budget each year. The plan must be approved by the state before the emergency is lifted.

Ohio Auditor Keith Faber declared the emergency in February after the school board and administration failed to get the operating budget under control.

But despite all the publicity surrounding the extraordinary step taken by the state auditor, the 1,700 or so voters in the May 7 primary let it be known they weren’t buying the doomsday scenarios.

By contrast, around 1,600 voters gave their blessings to the levy renewal.

While the closeness of the vote does give hope for a better outcome in the November general election, the recent meeting of the commission spotlighted some systemic problems.

Those problems must be addressed so residents of the district can rest assured that the school board and the administration will be good stewards of the public dollars once fiscal emergency is lifted.

The point of contention during the May 22 meeting of the financial planning and supervision commission was the decision by Superintendent Thigpen to proceed with purchase orders and personnel changes without the panel’s authorization.

Under emergency, no purchase orders above $5,000 are permitted unless the commission approves them first.

Tough decisions

There’s a reason for such an inflexible way of operating: The district’s fiscal collapse was the result of the school board and the superintendent and her staff failing to make the tough decisions to erase the red ink.

Indeed, when state Auditor Faber declared the emergency, budget projections revealed six- and seven-figure deficits for the next five years.

The state action was not a surprise because a year ago, then Auditor David Yost, now Ohio’s attorney general, issued a fiscal watch declaration because of the red ink on the books.

The district was required to submit a fiscal recovery plan, which was approved by the state. However, in December, the Ohio Department of Education recommended the fiscal emergency declaration after the Niles district failed to comply with the plan.

It is this history that may have triggered the criticism of the superintendent.

Thigpen tried to explain that time was of the essence, which is why she proceeded without seeking the commission’s approval.

As The Vindicator reported, one issue of particular concern was payment of nearly $15,000 to repair the schools’ public address system. The commission had tabled approval on that expense during an earlier meeting.

Thigpen explained the expenditure was a “safety issue” because the system had failed to function for tornado drills.

But commission members weren’t convinced.

“That is not how this is supposed to work,” said member Robert Swauger, a former Niles city treasurer. “Nothing is to be paid until it’s approved.”

It is worth noting that for four years, Niles city government was under fiscal emergency and that it seemed the state’s shackles would never be removed because various parties involved in developing a recovery plan couldn’t get their act together.

The financial planning and supervision commission reviewed eight versions of the recovery plan.

But in March, Auditor Faber released the city from emergency after there was a change in attitude on the part of local government officials.

As we have noted in previous editorials dealing with fiscal problems in the public sector, at the heart of any government’s economic challenges is the lack of discipline on the part of the keepers of the public purse.

The public dust-up over Thigpen’s actions has occurred early enough for the commission, the administration and the school board to get on the same page.

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