‘Mediocre’ Outlook for Local Schools

Elizabeth Dobbins, Staff Writer

John Schroth, superintendent of the Oberlin City School District, has tried to stay positive about the district’s “mediocre” financial projection. According to a recent auditor’s report, the Oberlin City School District has a “mediocre” financial outlook.

“Mediocre is better than rotten,” said Schroth, superintendent of the Oberlin City School District.

For the last three years, the school system has spent less than its total revenue; however, this is expected to change in the 2015 fiscal year with expenditures rising above revenue and cutting into existing funds. This trend is projected to continue at least until the 2017 fiscal year. Schroth explains that this pattern of under and over budget years is indicative of the way the Ohio school funding system functions.

“Essentially the system is set to have these kinds of cycles,” Schroth said. “You pass an issue, you collect more money than you need for a couple of years, and then you spend that money in a later couple of years. There comes a time when either you have to cut costs or pass another issue. And that’s the way we’re faced now.”

According to Schroth, tax issues are passed and collect at a flat rate of money for a set period of years with no adjustment for inflation or rising costs. Income tax increases with inflation, but other funding sources, such as property tax or state funds, do not change. This means the school district must periodically increase revenue or cut spending.

“I wouldn’t say I’m concerned,” said District Treasurer Angela Dotson. “The district is very proactive and our five year forecast does show a loss a couple years out but I have all confidence that we will make the adjustments necessary.”

The report released by the Ohio Auditor of State assessed the financial position of the district’s four schools: Oberlin High School, Langston Middle School, Prospect Elementary and Eastwood Elementary.

Among the more ambitious adjustments is the proposal to build a new facility for kindergarten through grade 12. Currently, the school district has four different schools and leases space to two other organizations. By downsizing to one new facility, the district expects to save between $1.25 and $1.5 million a year in upkeep and maintenance.

“One of the things that we were looking at is tearing down [the current school buildings] and selling off the lots for redevelopment,” continued Schroth. “We’re looking at alternative uses for some buildings for early child care and seniors and maybe studio space even possibly student housing for that matter.”

Since the current facilities were built in the 1950s and ‘60s, enrollment in the Oberlin school system has dropped from about 2,000 to less than 1,000, despite little change in the city’s population. As a result, Oberlin schools have almost twice as much square-footage per student compared to any other district in Lorain County, leaving empty seats in the city’s classrooms.

A demographic study conducted in 2012 predicts no significant change in enrollment over the next 10 years. The new, smaller school would cut down on yearly maintenance costs, allowing adequate funding for the district and possibly lowering property taxes.

“It’s probably, one of the few opportunities we’re going to have to cut costs going into the future,” said Dotson. “It has more efficient buildings that don’t require as many repairs. Less space to maintain requires less upkeep cost most of the time.”

The proposal to build a new school will go on the ballot as a large bond issue next November. More information about the proposal will be available this spring, but Schroth expressed concern that some voters may not approve the large initial expenditure required to build a new facility.

“Explaining the financial aspect of it [will be challenging] because it is going to be a large bond issue at the beginning. We really need to do this in order to save money in the long run,” said Schroth.

If the issue is passed, Schroth says, the new building will be the first carbon-neutral K-12 school in the nation. Alternatively, if construction of the school is not approved, Dotson says the School District may combat the budget and space issues by combining schools and downsizing to three buildings.

“Things don’t look horrible for the next few years,” said Schroth. “But we have to keep looking ahead and put things in place today that are going to affect what’s going to happen in 2017.”