There are no easy answers for school districts in dire financial straits, such as the Waterloo and Field districts, which are appealing to the voters for more local funding and confronting the possibility of a takeover by the state if they can't resolve their money issues.
A state takeover is by no means a magic bullet, Waterloo area residents were reminded Monday during a forum focusing on the district's financial options. Among the speakers was Roger Hardin, a representative of the Ohio Department of Education, who said state control doesn't wipe the financial slate clean but merely provides "solvency assistance" that must be repaid.
That means placing levies before voters until a funding request is approved. As a district's deficit increases, levy requests will grow to cover it. An even more drastic option, if it becomes apparent that levies have no chance of passing, would be forced consolidation; the state would step in and the district would cease to be.
Another speaker at the Waterloo meeting was Superintendent William Stauffer of the Springfield school district in Summit County, which has been in fiscal emergency for six years. He shared how that district has cut roughly 100 positions and is spending about $6 million less annually than it did six years ago, but is still digging out of its financial pit.
"There's a misconception: 'Just welcome the state in and they'll solve all your problems," Stauffer said. "You do not want the state coming in."
Waterloo and Field have cut budgets, frozen salaries, eliminated programs and curtailed class offerings in their efforts to reduce spending. Both districts have seen repeated levy failures at the polls, which has only worsened their financial woes. Waterloo has a 5.9-mill emergency operating levy on the Feb. 5 special election ballot; Field is weighing options for a ballot issue in May.
Unless voters in the two districts choose to support school levies, there seems to be little alternative but to begin the path from fiscal caution to fiscal emergency -- a path that will severely curtail local authority over school operations. A state takeover, contrary to what some in those districts seem to believe, isn't a preferred option; it's a final alternative.
The best course of action for both Waterloo and Field to maintain control of their schools and ensure that young people in those districts receive the education they deserve would be to pass a school levy.