EAST LIVERPOOL - With a five-year forecast predicting budget deficits beginning in the 2015-16 school year, the city's board of education this week discussed belt-tightening measures that could be implemented to cut costs.
Potential areas where savings could be realized were presented by Superintendent James Herring and Treasurer Todd Puster and included teacher banding, employee absences, health insurance, school choice, instructional technology, buildings and equipment maintenance and specialized instructional programs.
Teacher banding could save money because there would be more teachers to "spread kids around in," Herring said.
All students in a particular grade would be placed in one building, and Herring gave tentative numbers showing how student to teacher ratios might change in such a case.
For example, he said there are currently 215 students and nine teachers in the district's kindergarten classes for a 24:1 ratio. With one less teacher, that ratio would go to 27:1.
The state recommends a 25:1 ratio, but Herring said, according to the negotiated agreement with teachers, the district can go as high as 30:1.
"Is that educationally good? Not really, but when you're in financial straits, you have to (do) something," Herring said, adding he believes there is "some value" in grade banding and that the transportation supervisor has said there would be little impact on transporting students.
If banding resulted in the reduction of five teachers, that would mean a savings of $275,000 annually, but Herring said the board would have to decide whether it is a good idea.
Asked by board Vice President Robert Estell how building capacity is holding up, Herring said, "We're pushing for room. Any building you discuss, we're crowded. The only building we have room in is right here (Westgate)."
He said there is room for an entire grade level at the Westgate complex, which is actually slated for demolition as part of the district's Ohio School Facilities Commission project, but which has received a reprieve.
"We cannot get rid of this building and we need to use it to potential," Herring insisted.
Estell asked that Herring provide the board with projected classroom and building capacities for next year, and it was agreed to discuss the banding issue with other districts during the upcoming Ohio School Boards Association conference to see how it has worked.
Teacher absences cost the district $207,000 for substitutes last year, while absent non-teaching employees cost $162,000 out of the general fund, according to Puster.
"If we can think of ways to improve attendance, there are dollars to be saved," Puster said.
Board member Richard Wolf suggested enforcing repercussions that are available for those with excessive absences.
Next to employee wages, benefits is the second highest cost in the district, Puster advised the board, adding that the health insurance program was changed during the district's fiscal emergency, resulting in some cost savings.
Currently, the district is looking at a possible network change that could net another $300,000 in savings, but Puster said the board may need to look at the plan design in the future.
President Janice Martin pointed out the district does not pass any premium increases onto the employees due to contract mandates.
Bringing students back into the fold from other schools can also save the district money, with Puster reporting 467 students are currently attending out of district schools at district taxpayer expense to the tune of $2.7 million.
They go to parochial, community/online or neighboring school districts under open enrollment.
Herring said the district is "on the right path" by becoming "effective" on the state report card and said he plans on going door-to-door to the home of every student attending class elsewhere, inviting them back to the city school district.
The district does have an online system at its disposal with the Virtual Learning Academy, Herring said, adding he will work with teachers' union to utilize it.
Puster said he defies anyone go out in this area and find another district that offers the depth of athletic, music and art programs offered in the city district which are not factored into the state report card but which are necessary to produce productive citizens.
Also discussed was to what level the district wants to move with technology and how it will be funded, with professional development, updated infrastructure, equipment and policy changes needed.
Puster said the district also must address on an on-going basis the depreciation of district buildings, furniture, lands/grounds and vehicles, saying it is often tempting to use up the maintenance budget.
Lastly, Puster addressed the cost of special education, pointing out that 40-50 years ago, students with special needs were sent to separate facilities but subsequent changes now require them to attend their home schools whenever necessary.
About 60 percent of the cost of educating special needs students falls upon the local district and not from state or federal funding sources, according to Puster, who noted 25 percent of the city district's students have special needs.
Puster told the board the financial forecast is "just that" and not necessarily a prediction of doom and gloom if things are corrected early.