Schools should give strong look at consolidation
A triple whammy of troubling trends spells financial gloom for most public school districts in the Mahoning Valley: falling student enrollments, rising overall costs and declining state aid.
Combined, those trends make status-quo local school financing unsustainable. But don’t just take our word for it. That doomsday prediction comes from Mahoning County Auditor Ralph Meacham, known for his expertise and keen attention to detail in public finance management.
“Systemic changes are needed. Each (school) district needs to evaluate where they are going. I’m about sustainability, and what we have here is not sustainable,” he told our reporter after releasing his eye-opening report on Mahoning County’s 14 public school districts last week.
Findings from that report, compiled largely from Ohio Department of Education spreadsheet data, illustrate the financial health of public school districts in Mahoning County — and by extension throughout the Mahoning Valley — remains precarious at best.
• Enrollment in Youngstown City School District has dropped over the past four years from 4,837 in 2019 to 4,429 in 2022. What’s even more unsettling has been the 60 percent surge in the cost to educate one student. Per pupil costs in that troubled urban district rose from $18,072 in fiscal year 2019 to $28,967 in fiscal year 2022.
• Boardman Local School District has seen a drop in student enrollment since 2019 — from 4,059 to 3,819. And the cost of educating each student shot up by about $1,500 to $12,118 in 2022.
• South Range Local School District dipped from 1,251 to 1,204. It also saw a 19 percent rise in per pupil costs for the district during that time.
Taken together, the data once again reinforces what we and other advocates of fiscal responsibility in taxpayer-financed spending have been saying for years: It’s time for structural and systemic change.
The cost of operating public schools rises every year for most taxpayers. As a result, more people are becoming delinquent on their property taxes, putting school districts closer and closer to the breaking point.
To minimize that danger, districts need to find ways to swing a sharp ax at those constantly rising expenditures. One proven method has been consolidation or merging of districts to create substantial savings through economies of scale.
Many school districts have used consolidation of students into fewer buildings as big money savers. It’s time for many of them to take the next step by consolidating with a nearby district or districts.
The financial and academic benefits are many. A University of Dayton study on school consolidation in Ohio found consolidated school districts give rise to a larger tax base and potentially fewer property tax levies on the ballot. Savings also result from fewer high-priced administrators and fewer buildings to heat, cool and maintain.
Academically, the study showed more enriched curriculum offerings can be offered with a larger student base. In addition, more services to students can be provided such as occupational therapy, physical therapy and a hodgepodge of extracurricular activities.
All of those benefits, however, have not been enough to overcome a seemingly insurmountable hurdle: residents’ passionate pride in their individual school districts and stiff resistance toward carving them up or merging with others.
With that in mind, perhaps an initiative launched by the Youngstown-Warren Regional Chamber more than a decade ago should be resurrected.
At that time, the chamber proposed consolidation of public school administrations. Each county would have a central administrative office, thus eliminating layers upon layers of bloated administrative teams led by superintendents for each district. At the same time, however, most communities could retain their own identity, much in the way rival high schools maintain their own character within one urban district.
Sadly, the Regional Chamber’s proposal was dead on arrival at the school districts. Superintendents and school boards offered a slew of excuses for why a centralized system was not practical. And many today take issue with the findings of Meacham’s new report.
It’s therefore time for school district taxpayers to rise up and call on their school boards at least to explore the potential benefits of merging administrative teams and some facilities.
After all, the bottom line in this financial debate must rest with what’s best for students. Considering academic quality can be enhanced while providing local taxpayers some long-needed relief, serious consideration to right-sizing Valley school systems is a no-brainer.