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School finances in Mahoning County ‘not sustainable’

Auditor suggests districts consolidate to cut costs

With 10 of Mahoning County’s 14 school districts losing enrollment and all but one seeing a double-digit increase in cost per student over the past four years, county Auditor Ralph Meacham said the system is unsustainable.

But officials at a number of the school districts said largely because of a change in how students are counted, they did not see the steep declines in enrollment shown in a new report by Meacham’s office.

The school officials say because of how students had been counted — compared to now — the increased cost per pupil is often less than what is shown in the report.

Meacham’s office compiled its financial statistics report of the 14 school districts using data supplied by the school systems to the Ohio Department of Education, as well as each district’s five-year forecasts and salary information.

“Systemic changes are needed,” Meacham said. “Each district needs to evaluate where they are going. I’m about sustainability, and what we have here is not susta≠inable.”

School districts in the county received about $160 million this year, which is about 60 percent of property tax proceeds distributed by the auditor’s office, he said.

“I believe taxpayers are interested in and entitled to know how Mahoning County school districts compare to each other and how they are changing over time,” Meacham said.

“We have to look hard at these schools and look at consolidation, but that’s for the administrators and the school districts to decide. The purpose is to generate the conversation. With our population decline (in the county), this is not sustainable over the long run.”

ENROLLMENT AND COST

The two key components in the report, the auditor said, are enrollment figures — called average daily membership in ODE data — and cost per student between fiscal years 2019 and 2022.

Blaise Karlovic, Austintown school district treasurer, said while Meacham’s report is accurate, it doesn’t tell the full story.

That’s because the state in 2021 changed how enrollment is counted.

Before then, that figure included those who live in a school district but attend other schools through open enrollment, vouchers, as well as charter schools, Karlovic said.

“We never saw those kids,” he said. “Now, it’s butts in seats. That’s a big difference. The data Mr. Meacham is presenting is accurate, but there’s more to it. Is (enrollment) declining? Yes. It’s the way it is. There’s not enough kids because of declining population. But between 2019 and 2023, we’re down 11 students.”

The ODE data shows Austintown lost 508 students between 2019 and 2022.

It will take two more years to show a complete comparison of how many students were lost or gained at each district, Karlovic said.

Also, Karlovic said because school districts received federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds to help with various expenses arising from the COVID-19 pandemic, it led some to have an increase in cost per pupil.

After those federal funds are spent, by the end of 2024, the cost per pupil will decline, Karlovic said.

Austintown schools had a 19.29 percent increase in expenditure per pupil from 2018 to 2022, according to Meacham’s report. Karlovic said that is slightly below the national inflation rate.

“Do I think the trend will continue? No,” he said. “It will trend down in 2024 and 2025.”

BOND ISSUES SOUGHT

The school districts in Poland and Canfield saw student enrollment declines of 10.79 percent and 10.63 percent, respectively, between 2019 and 2022, according to Meacham’s report using ODE data. Both districts are asking voters to back bond issues of more than $100 million each on the Nov. 7 ballot to build new schools.

Asked if the districts need to justify those bond issues in the face of declining enrollment, Meacham said: “I would think so, but I’m just a bean counter.”

Craig Hockenberry, Poland superintendent, said the cost of everything is going up and new buildings would reduce the repair expenses incurred by the district. He also said Poland’s enrollment actually increased.

“In the long run, if it passes, it could make us more efficient,” Hockenberry said. “We’d spend less money on fixing roofs and other repairs. Also, the cost of everything has gone up. We’re finding ways to be more efficient. Enrollment is declining in certain grades, but the cost is not going down. Let’s have a conversation about every single thing. The price of everything is going up. Things are getting more expensive. The cost to build a new school has doubled in eight years.”

Hockenberry said enrollment at Poland has increased despite the state data, pointing to the way students were counted before 2021, as Karlovic did.

“Schools across Ohio after the pandemic are seeing a decline with parents deciding to keep kids home,” Hockenberry said.

But he said he is concerned with the number of students who are now home-schooled compared with those before the pandemic.

Four children were home-schooled in the Poland district in 2014, but that number is 60 this school year, Hockenberry said.

ENROLLMENT

Youngstown, the county’s most-populous school district, saw the largest decrease in enrollment and the largest increase in cost per student by significant amounts, according to Meacham’s report using ODE data.

During that time, enrollment at Youngstown dropped 54.41 percent from 9,715 students in 2019 to 4,429 last year. Meanwhile, its cost per pupil increased 60.29 percent from $18,072 in 2019 to $28,967 in 2022.

The next largest enrollment decline in the county is 29.82 percent in Sebring, which has the smallest number of students in Mahoning County with 364 in 2022. It had 519 students in 2019.

That is followed by Campbell with a 22.97 percent decrease from 1,355 students in 2019 to 1,043 in 2022.

Matthew Bowen, Campbell superintendent, said his district has more students now than in the past four years.

“Our enrollment is increasing,” he said. “With 100 percent certainty, we have more kids attending now than in recent years. That’s going to skew the cost per pupil, too.”

Bowen said the changes in how students were reported before 2021 likely had something to do with the previous pupil count. The current enrollment is about 1,120, he said.

The district in the county with the largest increase, by far, in enrollment is Lowellville, according to Meacham’s report. The district’s enrollment went up by 93.58 percent from 245 in 2019 to 475 last year.

But Christine Sawicki, Lowellville superintendent, said the district’s enrollment figure for 2019 was 493, a major difference than what Meacham provided. She said enrollment declined by 18 students between 2019 and 2022.

“We don’t have an increase,” Sawicki said. “I’d like to have one, but we don’t.”

The other districts that show enrollment up between 2019 and 2022 are South Range with a 17.79 percent increase, Western Reserve at 15.83 percent and Jackson-Milton at 3.33 percent.

COST PER PUPIL

All 14 districts in the county saw an increase in cost per pupil between 2019 and 2022 with Poland being the lowest at 9.19 percent, according to Meacham’s report.

Those just above 10 percent are: Jackson-Milton at 10.63 percent, Struthers at 11.72 percent, Springfield at 12.25 percent, Lowellville at 12.68 percent and Campbell at 12.82 percent. Except Youngstown and Sebring, the latter at 37.9 percent, the rest of the districts had increases under 20 percent.

Youngstown’s expenditure per pupil went from $18,072 in 2019 to $28,967 in 2022 while Sebring jumped from $16,524 to $22,788 during the same period.

Except for Sebring and Campbell, which was at $16,992 per pupil in 2022, up from $15,062 in 2019, the 11 other districts in the county had a per-pupil expenditure of less than half of Youngstown’s amount last year. Youngstown has one of the worst academic performing school districts in the state.

Bowen said a more accurate count of students would have resulted in a smaller increase in per-pupil costs.

OPEN ENROLLMENT

With Mahoning County’s population declining and fewer school-aged children, eight of its school districts have open enrollment in an effort to increase the number of students, Meacham said. But with the state changing the formula for open enrollment, those districts will be impacted, he said.

Meacham added: “The pie is shrinking and you’re redistributing it. It’s shifting chairs around the Titanic. ‘That’s my chair,’ but it will be underwater.”

Meacham said the Jackson-Milton district, in which he resides, gets $4,669 in state revenue per student with the cost per student at $13,391.

“As state support decreases, school administrators must calculate the financial impact and cost to students of educating students from other districts,” he said.

dskolnick@vindy.com

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