County BOE Talks Schools, Finances
Thursday, January 10, 2013
It's cooperation, not necesarily consolidation, when it comes to figuring out a solution for school finance problems, said Geauga County Educational Service Center Superintendent Matt Galemmo.
Galemmo sat down with the Geauga County Maple Leaf Jan. 4 to discuss the future of school funding for all seven county school districts, highlighting Ledgemont Schools, which is currently in financial dire straights.
He said consolidation is not the only option on the table, but it is one of several options a subcommittee for the ESC will look at in the next few months.
The ESC recently created a committee formed of the county's seven school superintendents, school board members and treasurers to look at the issue, Galemmo said, adding it's two-fold and involves finance- and programming-related needs that must be addressed.
Although no decisions have been made yet, the ESC paid about $4,000 in December to help fund two audits at the county and state levels of the county's school districts in order to get a baseline data level of the districts' finances.
Those audits should be completed over the next few weeks.
County Auditor Frank Gliha and an outside company that has done state-based audits for 250 school districts statewide are performing those audits, the superintendent said.
In addition to the ESC, the Geauga P-16 Council, a national initiative founded by Education Matters and Knowledge
Works Foundation, is involved in the decision to look at various funding options.
The P-16 Council consists of representatives from area schools, businesses and organizations and seeks to improve educational options for students.
The title symbolizes nomenclature for preschool to level 16, or senior year of college, according to the Ohio Education Matters website.
In Geauga County, the P-16 initiative was funded by a $25,000 grant from the Martha Holden Jennings Foundation a few years ago.
Remnants of that grant helped fund the cost of both December audits, which will be compared and discussed once the ESC receives them, Galemmo said.
The superintendents and Galemmo meet monthly to discuss relevant issues and financial issues are an important topic, said Assistant ESC Superintendent and P-16 Director Suzanne Allen.
"These conversations, along with the critical situation that Ledgemont (Schools) is currently facing, evolved to a point that our ESC and the Geauga P-16 Council made a decision to help our four small districts explore future options," Allen said in an email Tuesday. "What is at the heart of this exploration is not just the issue of keeping our districts financially solvent, but the need to ensure that our county's students will be able to receive the education they need to successfully transition into the 21st century workforce."
The situation Allen describes involves Ledgemont's financial issues, which have resulted in the district borrowing funds from the state to stay afloat and talk of a merger with another district.
Ledgemont Schools Superintendent Julie Ramos attended a Dec. 13 meeting with the ESC to discuss Ledgemont's situation.
Galemmo said the school boards and superintendents are slated to attend an ESC-sponsored dinner meeting 6 p.m. Jan. 16.
"We're at the discussion stage right now," Galemmo said.
Finances At The Forefront
One of the biggest challenges Geauga County faces is the State of Ohio itself.
The state has not sent as much aid to Geauga County schools recently, Galemmo said.
"All seven are struggling to pass levies and nobody wants any new taxes," he said. "Social agencies and county governments are struggling as well. The biggest concern is the state's loan fund."
Galemmo said districts are forced to take out loans from the state and pay the loans back -- along with interest -- with their general fund money.
So far, the school boards, superintendents and Galemmo have looked at three options: Consolidation; a joint district cooperative involving up to four districts; and increased emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education, and more cost-sharing between existing districts.
Galemmo said consolidation is a possibility, but a remote one, because of one factor: Identity.
"That's why it's not a large-scale operation in Ohio. Very few schools have participated in it because it would mean losing their identity," he said, adding it is, however, an item being discussed and under consideration.
Each township had a school at one point.
In the '50s and '60s, the major districts sprung up and only Newbury has a single-township school district at this time, Galemmo said.
In December, Ledgemont's Financial Planning and Supervision Commission discussed the idea of consolidation.
Chairman Paul Marshall said consolidating could provide some advantages such as helping other districts reduce overflow of students.
In that situation, the other district would receive both its assets -- buildings and property -- and its liabilities, such as debt, he said.
However, Marshall told school board members the current law does not spell out what happens if a district is not interested in joining with a district in Ledgemont's situation.
Another idea is a joint district cooperative between several school districts.
In this case, the schools would share the costs of programs, buildings and levies.
However, each school building would retain its own identity.
"Having a grade or a school building with 50 kids is not cost-effective," he said, adding details on that proposal are yet to be finalized.
Nevertheless, Galemmo said talks with Ohio School Facilities Commission members and legal counsel from that organization will give the ESC more direction on that initiative in the future.
"The attorney, Rebecca Princehorn, is involved with that commission," he said. "We'd need money to build a new school."
Princehorn referred all questions about the OSFC to the ESC.
A problem for Geauga County is due to its wealthy nature relative to Ohio's other 87 counties. It ranks at the bottom in terms of receiving state aid as a result, Galemmo said.
Lack of Programs a Problem For Some Districts
The third and final idea proposed, so far, involves more STEM education and more collaboration with current vocational schools such as Auburn Career Center in nearby Concord Township.
In addition to the financial analysis, the ESC is doing an analysis of district programming, Galemmo said.
"We're looking at what we have now versus what we'd like to offer. Our students are looking to be successful in the 21st century. And if we don't provide that, they're losing out in the end," he said.
For instance, he said some school districts offer four languages, while others offer two years of Spanish only.
"We're lucky there's programs there at all for some districts," Galemmo added.
Other possibilities include online courses, a mix of both traditional and online courses and Skype-based systems.
The biggest issue for programs in districts is levy-based.
The economic downturn in 2005-2006 enabled the state to relax rules on RIF (reducing-in-force) procedures, consequently allowing districts to let people go, saving money.
However, even with relaxed RIF rules, programs are often the first things cut in a failed levy attempt, Galemmo said.
Berkshire Schools Superintendent Doug DeLong, who also expressed enthusiasm for the committee's work on future financial proposals, said the issue came down to cost savings.
"We're looking at any ways to save money and share services," he said.
Shared Services a Step in Right Direction
Today, Geauga County's administrators are learning a schoolyard adage taught to them as yesterday's student: Share with others.
Currently, the ESC shares its speech therapists, psychologists and other personnel with the districts.
West Geauga has an in-house psychologist, but that is the exception.
The ESC has a shared services subcommittee that looks at how districts can share everything from busing to equipment to programs.
"We're looking at doing things with transportation facilities," Galemmo said. "A small district should not be a transportation business. This will help cut costs in administration, utilization of vehicles if we share."
So far, in-county sharing and allocating work has resulted in 30 programs shared among the various districts, including special education.
"Why have four, five special-education programs with two or three students each, and one teacher heading each class? That's not cost-effective," he said.
Newbury Schools Superintendent Dick Wagner said his district has been in talks with the ESC for several years about shared services.
"We're always helping each other out," Wagner said Tuesday.
The district's transportation coordinator, Kim Sass, said collaboration between Newbury and other districts regarding shared services has occurred since 2004.
Each transportation supervisor attends a summer meeting in order to see "who can help where."
"Everyone helps all over the county. What we do is try to figure out where all our special needs kids are going and who can help out," Sass said. "If a Cardinal student is going by our school, we can work our route into that and help them out. And if we have a student going to the same school as one of their students, they'll pick up our student."
She added, "This cuts down on gas, wear and tear on the vehicle and salaries. That's one less driver that has to be paid for that route. You just don't take one student somewhere; you do multiple schools."
Galemmo said shared services are a step in the right direction, but work needs to be completed.
Much of the course of action will depend on findings from both audits.
Subsequently, the group will have to decide on a course of action. And it will have to fund it via grants from various sources, Galemmo added.
"If you sit back and do nothing, then school districts come under receivership. The state won't let you dissolve," Galemmo said. "We must be proactive."
Below, view Part I of of six videos taken from Galemmo's interview. Log onto www.youtube/geaugamapleleaf to view the others.