Akron Public Schools panel negotiates budget cuts

By Doug Livingston
Beacon Journal education writer

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The Akron Public Schools Finance Committee convened Thursday with the goal of minimizing the effect of this year’s $16 million budget shortfall and a projected $9.5 million negative cash balance expected by the end of 2015.

What to cut, how much to cut and where to cut were all questions the committee — Superintendant David James, Treasurer Jack Pierson, board President Jason Haas and board members Patrick Bravo and Tim Miller — considered.

“I feel like we’re going to have to make some tough choices,” Bravo said.

He described his experience on the Finance Committee, separated from normal board business for the first time, as a “learning curve.”

Austerity measures were underpinned by an ominous uncertainty in what Gov. John Kasich’s two-year budget and “new” school funding formula will look like after numerous state hearings and an expected signing in June or July.

“It’s going to get brutalized,” Haas said.

Pierson, the district’s chief financial officer, laid out budget spreadsheets and program funding levels, each line divided into three columns: what can be cut, what can’t be cut and what might be cut.

He said he can’t control the $845,000 spent on volatile fuel costs each year, the $1.9 million paid to the county auditor for the collection of property taxes or the $31.7 million that follows 3,986 students who leave the district each year to attend a charter or private school — to name a few line items.

But there is one thing that can be cut to reduce costs.

“The only true reductions are people,” Pierson said.

The committee considered the districtwide teacher-per-pupil ratio of 21-1 as a starting point to discuss further staff reductions, even after laying off 84 teachers in 2012.

“We’re back to where we were last year, when, if we had to cut a teacher, then we had to cut a program,” Miller said.

“Or close a building,” said James, who lamented over previous cuts to electives and other programming. Negotiating cuts could prove more difficult than simply not replacing positions that open through attrition.

“I’d rather not have enough and add teachers when the school [year] starts,” he said.

Those and other cuts would be discussed and finalized in the next 60 days, Haas said.

The committee also discussed the depth of those cuts, reviewing Pierson’s variable budget projections based on $12 million, $8 million and $4 million in budget cuts for next year. He suggested that making deeper cuts would be more beneficial to the five-year forecast, which currently projects about $43 million more in expenditures than revenue between 2012 and 2015.

“The bleeding will eventually stop,” Pierson said.

Those cuts could include closing schools, even as construction continues on a decade-long and partially state-funded $890 million project to overhaul the district’s aging buildings.

While James and Pierson could conceive a spending plan that determines how many buildings should be closed, it would be the board that ultimately decides which cluster could be without a high school or middle school in the future.

Board members emphasized that all budget-reduction measures are tentative and that final cuts would be decided before Pierson issues the next five-year forecast in May.

That forecast would extend into 2018, and the committee recognized that it would span three governor’s budgets — while the current state budget is still being considered.

“This [current budget] is based on the politics in Columbus,” James said.

Doug Livingston can be reached at 330-996-3792 or dlivingston@thebeaconjournal.com.

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