Athens City School District Faculty, Staff, Parents, and Community Members;
After reading today’s newspaper article regarding the Athens City School District Board Meeting last week, I felt it necessary to provide some additional information. The article to which I am referring discussed the current and future financial situation of the District and reported on the discussion that I had with Board Members at that open public meeting. In short, we currently are spending significantly more money than we bring in. This has been happening for a few years and is getting worse each year. We currently have a positive cash balance and can cover the difference, however within three years this will not be the case.
There are two sides to the equation...revenue or income and expenses. On the revenue side, growth has been slow and has even gone backwards in some regards. We saw slight decreases in our state funding over the last biennial budget and have seen only minor growth in our total local tax revenue during that same time. On the expense side, despite only minimal cost of living increases (2%) last year, and efforts to reign in insurance costs, our expenses are increasing at a faster rate than our income. Our operations rely heavily on personnel, which make up the majority of our expenses. Technology, buses, and building repairs are paid in large part by “permanent improvement” funds that cannot be used for personnel. This leaves us in the position that reductions in our general fund budget most always impact staffing.
Last year we were able to reduce faculty and staff through attrition. The following is an example:
- A 2nd grade teacher retires. That position is filled by a kindergarten teacher. The incoming kindergarten has 33 students and there were previously 3 teachers assigned. By not filling the kindergarten teaching position, the kindergarten class size would increase to 16 or 17 students, still much lower than at other buildings. While dollars are saved, the negative impact on students is minimal.
Middle school and high school reductions get a little more complicated, as the result will be fewer sections of a class offered, and in some cases removal of an elective course. For example:
- A HS Social Studies teacher resigns. Social Studies courses have average class sizes under 20 students. By not filling the position, those class sizes may increase by 3-5 students per class. The HS teacher had “extra time” in his schedule whereby he offered a special elective course. Other teachers may not be able to pick up this elective.
The even more challenging decisions come with truly elective courses. Some teachers of elective courses have very full schedules with 20 or more students signed up for every class. Other teachers of elective courses may only see 8-10 students or less per class period. Students are essentially choosing not to take specific elective courses. How long do we continue to offer an elective course that is not popular? What is the number at which the class sizes are so small that it is no longer cost effective to offer certain choices to our students?
The concerns at the high school level are becoming more complicated in recent years with the expansion of PSEO or College Credit Plus options. Last school year we had approximately 65 students taking PSEO courses at Ohio University or Hocking College. In the current year we have over 135. We expect this number to grow next year. With the students, goes money to pay for the courses. With no additional revenue this expense has to be offset in some manner. If the students are taking classes at places other than Athens High School, some of our class sizes for courses we are currently offering become very small….in some cases less than 10 students. How long can we do this? When is the point that we stop offering as many options?
The point of my discussion with the Board at this month’s meeting, which was not explained well in the newspaper article, is that changes in state teacher retirement have made it necessary for many teachers to remain in the classroom longer. The phase in of these changes is hitting us now. What this means for the District is that we won’t have as many people retiring each year, making it difficult to rely on decreasing teachers through attrition as the primary strategy. If reducing positions and costs is the preferred method the Board of Education wishes to use to balance the budget equation, they will need to consider a reduction in force between now and next year.
Obviously, these decisions must be framed by input from the broader community. That input includes...How much should reductions play into the picture of balancing the budget? At what point should a levy be considered? For how much? What changes can be made to allow the least negative impact when reductions are made? Most people like “small class sizes”, but what does that mean? How many students per class or course?
In my prior work, I was the Superintendent of a district that had to confront these issues head on. The Board attempted six different levies in four years time. All failed. State revenue declined. In order to avoid a negative cash balance and having the state take over control of that district’s finances, the Board opted to reduce positions, close buildings, and make drastic reductions to services for students. I cannot explain how stressful and painful it was to make decisions that I knew were negatively impacting children. Unfortunately, that was the job.
Five years ago I moved with my family to Athens. Our main objective was to live in a school district where the community supported education and passed levies when needed. When a position became available at Athens I was excited to think that my work experience would be much different than it was in the district where I was working. Unfortunately, Athens is now facing a similar scenario. I’ve been disappointed this weekend to learn that, instead of focusing on the issue(s) at hand, some people are choosing to take to social media in a negative fashion. I’ve even been told that there is a conspiracy theory about “hidden agendas”. The purpose of this message is to make it clear...the agenda is not hidden…it is in broad daylight and very public...it has been discussed at Board Meetings and written about in the paper for more than two years. The agenda is a balanced budget. The agenda is to offer the best we can for our children with a level of taxes we can all afford.
Over the next few months the Board will be discussing how to move forward. The Board of Education must vote to approve any reductions in force and I must answer to the Board of Education in my work. If the Board directs me to continue to recommend reductions, I will do so in a manner that I believe to have the least negative impact on the education we offer our students.
If you are interested in knowing more first hand, attend the meetings. Provide input. Spend your energy to help in the solution.
The next Regular Board Meeting is at Athens High School on Thursday, May 19th at 7:30 p.m.
Thomas J. Gibbs, Ed.D.
Athens City School District
25 South Plains Road
The Plains, Ohio 45780