COVENTRY: For nearly as long as Ohio has been rating school districts based on their financial health, Coventry schools has been in fiscal watch — the second-lowest level possible.
Sixteen years in all. That’s six years longer than any other district in Ohio.
Spanning millions of dollars in budget reductions and employee concessions, Treasurer Aaron Butts — fresh out of options — survived one of the lowest points in the school’s financial history by making a tough decision at the end of his first school year at Coventry.
“I cannot end a fiscal year in the negative by law,” said Butts of the 2011-12 school year. “I basically did not pay bills in June.”
Butts made that comment during a board meeting last week to a cafeteria filled with local taxpayers, who recently approved a 5.99-mill tax increase that “was critical to our survival and staying out of fiscal emergency.”
He told the public that an October report forecast that four of the next five years would end in a negative cash balance. The combined bond issue and permanent improvement levy would free up operating revenue that had been consumed by repairs. The May version of that biennial report now projects black ink through 2018.
Then, Butts said something that no Coventry treasurer has been able to say in 16 years.
He said he would be mailing a letter to Columbus telling the state to take Coventry off of fiscal watch.
“It’s progress. We’re making progress,” he said.
The board unanimously approved the motion to move out of fiscal watch. Even after $600,000 in planned cuts, a levy failure would have prompted fiscal emergency and a much different future.
“It gets real bad,” said Butts, who took advice from Springfield, a school district that’s been there twice in the past decade.
“The state becomes very involved. It’s almost like having a second board of education,” said Springfield Superintendent William Stauffer.
Stauffer led Springfield out of fiscal emergency in 2011 after passing a similar bond issue.
But Springfield’s budget wasn’t balanced by additional property tax revenue, Stauffer said. Avoiding a potential deficit required cutting 20 percent of the budget and teaching staff.
“It eliminated some electives. It definitely made class sizes larger. Our elementary libraries were closed,” said Stauffer, who added that most programming, including the libraries, has been restored. Some teachers have been replaced — “nothing crazy” — and swelling class sizes have subsided.
Nonetheless, “It definitely impacted education,” said Stauffer. Springfield’s excellent rating in four of the past five years dropped two grades to continuous improvement in 2009 in the midst of severe cuts.
Students left with the fleeting programs and busing — one of the first items to be cut in financially strapped schools.
“We just gave them one more reason to leave,” Stauffer said.
In 2006, prior to fiscal emergency, Springfield was a net importer of students, accepting 310 students from area schools through open enrollment while losing about 228 students. By 2009, two years into fiscal emergency, the numbers nearly flipped, with 228 students coming in and 345 leaving. Students who left took additional state aid with them, compounding the funding issue.
Those numbers have never fully recovered as Springfield lost 13 more students than it gained through open enrollment last year.
The exodus was driven in part by limited program offerings, but it was also driven by a stigma of financial instability.
“The real downfall going into fiscal emergency here is loss of pride,” Stauffer said. “The perception was that we weren’t good because we were in fiscal emergency. So, people left.”
With a five-year financial forecast “as good as any” and $7.5 million left after the books are settled this year, Stauffer advised many schools like Coventry, which has faced severe deficits.
Butts took that advice and assured the public that he would fulfill his “fiduciary responsibility to stretch [additional levy] money as far as I can.”
He knows that getting into fiscal emergency is easier than getting out.
“I think that’s alarming to everybody. And I think it’s just a byproduct of how we fund our schools in Ohio,” Stauffer said, hinting of declining state aid for public schools.
Getting into financial trouble may be something more and more districts experience.
“We were just ahead of the curve,” Stauffer cautioned.
Doug Livingston can be reached at 330-996-3792 or firstname.lastname@example.org.