School districts in path of gathering financial storm
In Ralph Meacham’s world, numbers come first, and politics second.
Thus, when Meacham, the auditor of Mahoning County, met with Vindicator editors and writers last week and mentioned the “C” word in his discussion about the future of school districts in the region, he was certainly throwing political caution to the wind.
Indeed, the Republican officeholder was so blunt in his assessment of what’s taking place financially in the districts, pushback from the self-preservation crowd of pubic officials already is occurring.
Here’s the question Meacham asked rhetorically that serves as an ideal launching pad for a countywide discussion about education funding:
“ ... Is the function here to employ adults or to educate children?”
It’s a question fraught with political danger. It pits public employees, who are determined to hold onto their jobs long enough to qualify for lucrative public pensions, against students who have a right to a quality education.
Meacham’s hourlong meeting with The Vindicator’s Editorial Board was aired live on Vindy.com, the paper’s website, and can be viewed online at bit.ly/2MRH5HN.
The Vindicator’s last day of publication is Aug. 31 and Wednesday’s no-holds-barred session could well have been the final one.
Meacham was invited because of his exhaustive financial analysis of the 14 public school districts in Mahoning County.
His findings, along with spreadsheets summarizing the data, were revealed in a front-page story by Reporter Justin Dennis on July 22.
Here’s what Dennis wrote:
“All but one school district in the Mahoning Valley lost eligible students between 2014 and 2017, according to the Ohio Department of Education. Meacham said these statistics suggest the public school landscape is financially unsustainable.”
The ‘C’ word
The auditor was pressed on the issue during our meeting, and that’s when he used the “C” word – “consolidate.”
“ ... If it makes more sense for some of these [districts] to join together, it makes more sense to consolidate,” said the certified public accountant, who came to county government from the private sector, including three years as the chief financial officer of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
As we listened to him make the compelling case that there aren’t enough public dollars to maintain the status quo, we were reminded of an initiative launched by the Youngstown-Warren Regional Chamber more than a decade ago.
The chamber proposed a consolidation of public school administrations. Each county would have had a central administrative office, thus getting rid of the layers of administrative teams led by superintendents.
The proposal, which was endorsed by this newspaper, was dead on arrival at the school districts. Superintendents and school boards offered a slew of excuses for why a centralized system was not practical.
Not surprisingly, the proposal withered on the bureaucratic vine.
Now, consider the reaction of Alex Geordan, Canfield superintendent, to Meacham’s comments to The Vindicator:
“In my opinion, it’s not the county auditor’s position to make recommendations to local school systems when it comes to consolidation. … I feel it’s a community decision whether someone gets supported or not.”
It’s noteworthy that Canfield was the only district in Mahoning and Trumbull counties to record an increase in the average daily student attendance.
Meacham was careful not to dictate solutions to the school districts that are imploding financially because of a loss of students.
But he did say change will come only when citizens get involved.
There’s a strong argument to be made for consolidating school districts. The five-county Mahoning and Shenango valleys in Ohio and Pennsylvania lost a combined 3,486 people, according to U.S. Census Bureau data released last year. In 2017, the region lost 6,384 people.
Thus, while the student population continues to decline, taxpayers are still being called upon to support the districts.
“The cost of operating our schools is going up every year for our taxpayers,” the county auditor said. “More people are becoming delinquent on their [property] taxes. Does that sound sustainable to you?”
Numbers don’t lie – especially in the hands of an individual who has built his career on integrity, transparency and accountability.
Meacham deserves the support of all Mahoning County taxpayers who believe, as we do, that the financial well is running dry and cost-cutting must be rule rather than the exception in the public sector.