Warren reviews 5-year forecast

VINCENT – The Warren Local Board of Education approved its latest five-year financial forecast and discussed concerns about the Common Core curriculum standards at its regular meeting Tuesday evening.

The forecast, required to be submitted to the Ohio Department of Education in October and updated in May, shows the district in deficit spending all five years. Despite a nearly $4.75 million cash balance going into the current fiscal year, Warren would be in the red at the end of fiscal 2016, if current trends and assumptions hold true.

“We’ve had that same picture in the past, but we’ve started working on it (in advance),” board President Sidney Brackenridge said. “That’s your job as a board, to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

The board took in more money than it spent in fiscal years 2011 and 2012 and has managed expenses by reducing staff through attrition and hiring younger teachers to replace retiring veteran educators, Treasurer Melcie Wells said. Personnel services – salaries and wages – decreased by about 6.3 percent and 5 percent in fiscal 2012 and 2013, while benefits dropped 0.9 percent and 4.8 percent during the same period, according to a chart she showed the board.

“You can see that trend does not continue on,” Wells said.

Personnel services are projected to decrease by half a percent this year and rise no more than 1.93 percent over the next four years. But benefits are predicted to jump nearly 21 percent this year, with the lowest increase through fiscal 2018 projected at just less than 8.5 percent. Contributing factors include the expected unionization of a group of aides not previously represented and increases in benefits due to the federal Affordable Care Act, among other factors.

Wells noted that in addition to action taken by the board, changes in state aid and other areas can alter the assumptions and amounts in the forecast, which is at best an educated guess.

“There are some things in the forecast that we know … almost 100 percent,” she said. “There are a lot of (items) in this forecast that are 100 percent assumed.”

A major financial issue before the district is the pending expiration of an emergency levy, first approved by voters in 1995, that generates $1.75 million a year. The board is likely to place it before voters for renewal in 2014.

In other business, Brackenridge noted a bill introduced in the General Assembly by state Rep. Andy Thompson, R-Marietta, to repeal the Common Core education standards adopted by the Ohio Board of Education in 2010. Critics say the standards, tied to federal Race to the Top funding, represent an intrusion by the federal government into education and question whether the standards are rigorous enough.

Brackenridge said the Ohio School Boards Association opposes the bill, and he was inclined to agree but wanted to get input from other board members before conveying his thoughts to lawmakers.

“We’re kind of into this. I think we need to stay with this and keep on going,” he said.

Board Vice President Debbie West said she sees positives and negatives to Common Core but believes it’s important to keep local control over education. Board member John Nichols said he was concerned the standards are not flexible enough.

“The problem is, you can’t rubber stamp every classroom,” Nichols said.

Superintendent Kyle Newton said there is still local control under the standards.

“The standards don’t dictate what is being taught. They don’t say use this book and not this book,” he said.

There is an increased emphasis on nonfiction texts, which has drawn criticism. And Newton agreed the standards could cause teachers to cut some of what they teach. For example, an emphasis on primary documents like the Declaration of Independence might not leave room for a social studies teacher to teach a unit on Washington, D.C., she’d done for many years.

“I don’t know if that’s bad or good; it’s just different,” he said.

Newton said he would try to find a neutral analysis of the standards to share with board members. The extreme ends of the spectrum, both for and against, can have too much of an agenda, he said.