Some districts on ballot show spending hikes

Eighteen area school districts have levies on the ballot May 7, and all of them have made budget cuts of some type in the past few years.

But according to a newspaper review of financial filings, some districts that market their levies by touting millions of dollars in spending cuts have actually increased their general fund expenditures in recent years.

Springfield City Schools is one district where spending went up from 2010 to 2012. In 2009-10, the district spent $6 million less than it took in, allowing it to increase spending by 9 percent the next two years while still staying in the black for each year.

Treasurer Chris Mohr said the district has also improved its state rating from continuous improvement to effective. The district has a 2.2-mill bond issue on the ballot in May, but if that passes, another property tax levy will be allowed to expire, causing the tax burden to stay flat.

Mohr’s five-year forecast shows district revenue dropping for the first time this year, but he said the financial cushion Springfield has built up gives the district flexibility.

“We wanted to see what happened with the state budget this year,” he said. “When you have an ending cash balance that is as healthy as ours is, we have the ability to take a more measured approach. The more money you’re able to save, the more time you’re able to give yourself to make decisions, where other school districts don’t have that luxury.”

Centerville City Schools said last fall it has made $12 million in cuts over four years, but the district’s own five-year forecast shows spending rose from $77.8 million in 2009-10 to $83.9 million in 2011-12. Other districts such as Huber Heights and Carlisle also saw general fund spending go up despite making some cuts.

The issue in most cases is how you define a budget cut.

School districts must file five-year forecasts with the state, projecting how much they’ll spend in the future. An Ohio Department of Education document admits this forecasting “is as much an art as it is a science.”

But when a district’s actual spending comes in lower than it had originally forecast, some districts will refer to that as a budget cut, even if it just meant a smaller spending increase.

On the other hand, many districts can point to very real cuts and layoffs they have made in certain areas of their budgets. But Huber Heights City Schools Treasurer Ann Bernardo said the dollar impact of those cuts can be erased by hikes in other parts of the budget, leaving a district with an overall spending increase.

“It gets frustrating,” said Bernardo, whose district has seen spending rise just 0.9 percent the past two years. “You think you’re going to make some headway (with savings), and then all of sudden we’ll have a meeting where it says, ‘These are going to be your increases in health insurance (costs) next year,’ and you say, oh my gosh. You’re almost afraid to go to meetings because you’re afraid to hear what they’re going to say.”

A review of five-year forecasts for the 21 districts that originally approved levies for the May ballot shows 14 of them increased spending between 2010 and 2012, even though only four had enrollment increases, according to their state report cards. Many of those districts have forecast overall spending cuts for this school year, but actual data won’t be available until summer.

Most of the 2010-12 spending increases were moderate, but four districts — Carlisle, Springfield, Centerville and Brookville — increased spending by more than 7 percent. Only one district — Jefferson Twp., which had a significant enrollment decline — decreased spending by more than 5 percent. Clark-Shawnee decreased spending by 4.9 percent.

“Our expenses continue to go up over the years,” said Centerville Superintendent Tom Henderson, citing health insurance costs and continuing “step” raises for employees despite a base-pay freeze. “The bottom line is, we did spend more last year than we did in the 2010-11 school year in personnel.”

During its fall levy campaign, district officials said they had eliminated more than 60 positions since 2008. But financial documents showed wage spending went up by about $1 million in each of 2010-11 and 2011-12, while spending on benefits went up more than $1.5 million each year.

“If you spend more than you take home, you start dipping into your savings account, and that’s what we started doing a year ago,” Henderson said.

Michelle Prater, a spokeswoman for the Ohio Education Association, which represents local teachers, said Ohio Gov. John Kasich is to blame for local schools’ financial problems.

“He balanced the last state budget by shifting the burden to local schools and communities,” Prater said. “The new budget does the same thing, failing to restore $1.8 billion in cuts to schools, short-changing our students.”

Rob Nichols, spokesman for Kasich, disagreed, saying there were actually fewer new-money school levy requests in Ohio in 2012 under Kasich than there were in three of the four years under previous governor Ted Strickland. Nichols said the state had no choice but to balance its budget in 2011, and added that much of the money that schools lost was federal stimulus money.

Carlisle Local Schools, which has a 5.9-mill levy on the May ballot, saw a 10 percent jump in spending in 2010-11 before flattening out. Superintendent Larry Hook cited an 18 percent increase in benefit costs, the final raises before a pay freeze, and district spending to replace the end of federal stimulus funding accounted for the 2010-11 jump.

Carlisle schools now have back-to-back “excellent” ratings for the first time, and Hook said it’s time for the community to step up on the levy.

“Our union has taken a total pay freeze, and it’s every single employee. I don’t know how much more radical you can get,” Hook said.

Kettering City Schools removed its planned levy from the May ballot because of a possible funding increase from the state. Superintendent James Schoenlein took criticism from a local anti-tax group in 2010 for touting millions in cuts based on five-year forecasting, when total expenditures had actually gone up. Since then, several rounds of cuts have kept Kettering’s spending almost flat, despite a slight increase in enrollment.

“Class sizes have gone up,” Schoenlein said. “You cut stuff and hope that your staff steps up and covers the things that have been cut so that you continue to improve. So far, they’ve responded. … But it’s a good question — where is the limit of that? The end of your people’s capacity?”

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