BRIMFIELD TWP.: The Field school district needs a superintendent.
Neighboring Superintendent Andy Hill is looking for ways to save money in his district, Waterloo.
School boards in the two districts met this week for the second time to explore the possibility of sharing Hill as a way to save money in both school systems.
However, this week’s conversation didn’t go well, and not because of Hill.
The abrupt resignation of Field Superintendent Beth Coleman at a packed and heated meeting in February has left a divide on the Field board. At the meeting Thursday, questions and comments from the community often steered the conversation back to Coleman and growing mistrust of the board.
Coleman had indicated at the February meeting that she did not want to resign.
Hill weighed in occasionally but sat mostly on the sidelines during the nearly three-hour joint board meeting at Field High School.
Field board member Larry Stewart sat between colleagues Donna Karg and Laura May as the two squared off over an apparent lack of communication and “the whole Beth Coleman thing,” as one of them put it.
“We have got to think outside of this box that we are in,” Stewart stood up and pleaded. “And we have to fix this.”
Waterloo and Field share more than the southwestern corner of Portage County. Though Waterloo has half the students and Field has a higher academic rating, the districts face the same crunching budgets and state cutbacks that have forced others to share services and personnel to lessen expenses.
“Five-year forecasts look awful for both of us,” May said.
Hill said that a $2 million reduction in Waterloo’s $10 million budget over the past two years is a threat to education. Class sizes have swelled to the mid-30s. Meanwhile the staff that works with economically disadvantaged and special education students is spread more thinly as the number of students who qualify for a free or reduced lunch has doubled due to the recession.
Levy progress negated
Waterloo’s situation is dire. On the seventh attempt, voters in February approved a levy for additional funding. It passed by only 25 votes.
The levy was expected to raise about $939,557 per year, but days after passage, Waterloo officials learned that Gov. John Kasich’s school funding proposal could reduce state support to the district by $1.1 million.
The district already has cut programs to state minimums.
“How in God’s name can Waterloo do anything different here?” Hill said.
The levy approved in February restores nothing, he said.
“There’s no way that we’re going to be able to go back to this community in two years if [Kasich’s] proposal goes through and say, ‘We need more money,’ and think there is any likelihood that a community that is tapped out is going to be able to give anymore,” Hill said.
Field is no different
“We haven’t passed a levy in God knows when,” said Field’s Stewart.
District revenues tend to go in cycles. With approval of a levy, districts generally set aside a portion of the new funds so that when the levy stops producing enough revenue, there is a cash reserve on which to draw.
Field’s five-year forecast filed with the Ohio Department of Education shows that the district is now in its third year of drawing on its reserves to balance the budget, and that in a year it will no longer have enough cash to do so.
That follows $1.5 million in cuts for this year, according to the filing.
And while Gov. Kasich’s proposed budget would provide an increase for Field next year, it would barely make up for the cuts imposed in Kasich’s first budget two years ago.
Three possible scenarios
Hill sees three possible solutions for his district, two of which could involve Field.
One is to go into fiscal emergency and borrow from the state with the hope of winning a levy approval to pay off the loan. Fiscal emergency, however, also allows for a state takeover of the district and oversight by an appointed body.
The second is to consolidate with another district.
“To consolidate, you have to find a dance partner,” Hill said. “Good luck finding a partner that wants to consolidate with you when you have a bunch of ‘no’ votes and you’re carrying all this debt.”
The third road is shared services, and in Hill’s scenario that includes sharing his leadership.
Working with Field, though, means joining two divided districts.
Field board member May said she first would like to see sharing of services and support staff who work more directly with students.
Those top-position salaries and benefits cost Field about $117,600 and Waterloo about $113,200 annually, according to estimates by Field Treasurer James Vokac. He also estimates that if Field picked up a share of Hill’s salary, which has been speculated to increase to between $130,000 and $150,000, then the larger of the two rural districts at 2,400 students possibly could save about $45,000, or about $4,000 less than it pays for the average teacher.
But that’s a “quick and dirty estimate,” Vokac cautions. And no one knows what portion of Hill’s salary each district would pay. The board entertained the idea of Field paying two-thirds and Waterloo, which would contribute a third of the combined districts’ enrollment, would pay the remainder.
But that immediately raised concerns from Field board members, spearheaded by May, who said her district would be paying the lion’s share for a part-time superintendent.
“I’m not buying into the sharing of that top position,” she said.
Sharing a top position has worked for three Wayne County districts — Orrville, Rittman and Southeast (Waynedale schools). Superintendent Jon Ritchie’s salary, just above $100,000, is split based on each district’s enrollment.
“I would say I’m a bargain,” said Ritchie, who added that making it to every sporting event isn’t feasible.
Since he broadened his responsibilities beyond Orrville schools in 2007, the three districts have co-mingled and curbed expenses by sharing a transportation director, a food service director, a treasurer and other staff.
After the savings are added up, Hill and Ritchie said, there is money to hire teachers so that class sizes can be reduced to more manageable levels.
Doug Livingston can be reached at 330-996-3792 or firstname.lastname@example.org.