LISBON - Superintendents and treasurers from several of Columbiana County's school districts met with state Sen. Joe Schiavoni Friday to discuss some of their concerns about school funding issues, collaboration efforts and unfunded mandates.
Pooling the budgetary numbers provided by the treasurers of 11 county schools, Educational Service Center Fiscal Officer Cynthia Lengyel pointed out the general fund revenue for all the districts combined last year was nearly $142 million. However, their expenditures in the general funds were well over $144 million.
ESC Superintendent Anna Marie Vaughn pointed out some of the issues schools have in convincing voters there are some common misconceptions when it comes to school funding.
State Sen. Joe Schiavoni, right, speaks with local superintendents and treasurers, including, from left, Salem Treasurer James Wilson and East Liverpool Treasurer Todd Puster. (Salem News photo by Deanne Johnson).
"We've got to get people in the community to understand how this all shakes out," Schiavoni said, adding inviting them to public meetings usually results in the same 15 people attending who already understand it. "People have lost their trust in governmental entities."
For instance, the Ohio lottery money, which was sold to residents as a way to pay for schools, is filtered through the state, which decides how much money each district receives. Even when lottery sales rise and there is a $300 million jackpot, the state does not give additional money to the schools.
Another funding source discussed is the casinos, which has meant a little additional revenue to the schools. The 11 county schools shared in $620,000 last year. East Liverpool Treasurer Todd Puster noted his district, which got the biggest share, was able to purchase one bus at $85,000 with what they received. Puster said Salem received enough to purchase about 90 percent of the seats in a bus and the smallest district, Leetonia, received about enough to buy the driver's seat.
Lisbon Superintendent Don Thompson noted the state used to help subsidize bus purchases, but that no longer is the case. Crestview Superintendent John Dilling said because of the large cost of a bus, his district went to buying one only every other year and with 14 buses the district could soon find itself with its oldest bus 28 years old and unsafe.
Another funding misconception brought up at the meeting are residents believing schools are receiving large payouts from oil and gas leases, but the figures show its been very little. United Local Treasurer Kathy Davis said in their case the district has received $29 so far from the gas and oil money.
Puster called the gas and oil drilling situation an untapped tax resource for Ohio's schools.
"Every other state has a higher tax on drilling than Ohio," Schiavoni agreed with their concerns, "and they are still drilling in other places. Unfortunately we have a group of legislators who do whatever the gas and oil people want them to do, and the gas and oil people do not want higher taxes."
Discussion also moved to the grants which local schools compete for with others across the state. For instance $250 million will be given out to schools statewide over the next two years for the Straight A grant program. Right now local schools are working on grants to try to get their share money and are involved in a consortium through the ESC. However, there have been some concerns by several people in the room that nearly half the money has been earmarked for bigger schools in the largest cities in the state.
Schiavoni, who has been appointed recently to an educational committee in the state Senate, said some of the buzz words he is hearing in Columbus include school choice and consolidation. Schiavoni said he personally created a bill which would have eliminated students leaving a highly ranked public school to go to a poorly ranked charter school. Although the bill did not pass, he said it has opened some conversations.
Columbiana County Schools reportedly lost $11 million or 7.5 percent of their revenue last year due to open enrollment and community schools. The money is deducted from the dollars supposed to come to the local schools from the state. In order to try to offset this, some local schools have started doing more online classes in house or through their school.
While some of the superintendents see it as a necessity to keep some of those dollars when the students insist on changing to an online school, others see it as an option to offer classes for which they cannot afford to hire an entire teacher, such as Advanced Placement courses or additional foreign languages.
Another concern of the administrators is the Third Grade Guarantee, one of several unfunded mandates handed down through the state. The guarantee insists all students need to be able to read at a certain level in order to advance.
Schiavoni pointed out when items like the Third Grade Guarantee are presented on the floor of the Senate, it is done without a lot of details and the bill goes right through.
"Well, sure, we want every third grader to be able to read," Schiavoni said, "but the guts of it were not explained properly... In Florida, (where they deemed the program a success) they attached a considerable amount of dollars to making it work."
Locally, school districts have had to move teachers, add additional training for them and test children in kindergarten in order to start trying to catch those in danger of failing the test. Puster said he believes the key to doing well on the Third Grade Guarantee is preschool. Right now East Liverpool is offering preschool to 40 students and some recent additional money from the state, $112,000, will allow them to offer the program to 28 more.
"We are convinced with our socio economics, getting our children into preschool makes a big difference," Puster said, noting the ones enrolled in preschool are doing far better than ones who were not."
The administrators also talked about the new teacher evaluations, which are placing added stress on teachers who already have other added concerns about new school report card standards. School districts are still figuring out how to evaluate value added for students in grade levels where testing is not done, according to Vaughn. One of their options is to have a private company provide the data, but that costs money.
While many of the schools collaborate for some services such as special education services, professional development, grant writing and technology services, Vaughn points out consolidation is another matter. Recent studies have shown it may decrease costs up to 2,500 students, but anything larger than that shows a decrease in the quality of the education the students are receiving.
Wellsville Superintendent Richard Bereschik pointed out in Wellsville through attrition they have cut teachers, a principal, a janitor and other things, saving $320,000, yet still have a spending deficit projected each year. However, when it comes to consolidation ideas he points out people in the village use the school for so many community activities and it is the largest employer with 90 people.
He suggests there needs to be some alternatives to funding the schools mostly through property taxes, which Wellsville has the lowest values in the area.
"I think its going to be consolidation through starvation," he said.
Puster said he can sum up the area's funding issues with five topics - shared services are less than 10 percent of the schools' budgets, gambling revenues are not helping much, oil and gas drilling is an untapped resource, investment in preschool is important and we need a way to invest in technology.