Jack Pierson has been the treasurer of Akron Public Schools for 21 years, so when he reports that the district is projecting a rare positive balance at the end of the five-year budget forecast in 2018, it is quite remarkable. Consider that until this year, the five-year forecasts have projected annual deficits in the millions of dollars, the district wrestling continually to contain operating costs.
The Akron school board prudently has reduced spending during the past several years, the reductions covering building closures, program and job cuts across the system, including teaching positions. In fiscal years 2012 and 2013, the budget shrank by $21.5 million. On the strength of the latest forecast, the school board voted Monday to restore sports programs, foreign language courses and band and orchestra in the middle and elementary schools next school year.
That the financial outlook has improved enough to return programs that add immensely to the quality of education is heartening. All the same, the variability in fortunes also highlights some of the concerns with the school financing process.
One such issue is the recurring uncertainty in the funding system. Akron school administrators recognize the healthy financial outlook is due to two principal factors. Akron voters approved Issue 61 last fall, a property tax increase that yields an additional $19 million a year for operations. School officials understand only too well that voter approval is never a certainty when the purchasing power of levies erodes over time.
The second and equally important factor is that often the difference between deficit and surplus hinges on two-year, state budget cycles and changing funding formulas. For instance, Akron will receive the maximum increases allowed in the current two-year budget. The assumption by the district is that a new legislature will sustain the funding levels into the future.
For the public, swings in projections also pose an issue of credibility regarding the forecasts. Levies often are won or lost because voters are persuaded the projections accurately reflect the financial reality. Wide variations, unfortunately, breed skepticism.