Time for talk not yet here

LISBON – Can we talk?

The Lisbon school board wants to do just that by hosting a series of town hall meetings starting this fall to seek public input about the direction of the district as part of efforts to address financial problems looming on the horizon.

“We’re interested … in what the people really have to say,” said board President Jim Smith, speaking at Tuesday’s meeting. “It’s really up to the people in the district, and not just parents, where we go in this district.”

Smith said the district’s deficit spending situation is only one of the reasons for the meetings. The board also wants to hear what the public has to say about moving the fifth grade from McKinley Elementary to the middle school. Superintendent Don Thompson made the suggestion in March as a way to save money and improve the academic performance of fifth-grade students, but he is retiring June 30.

The board decided against acting immediately on Thompson’s suggestion. “We thought it was way too late in the year to begin that conversation” and decided to make the possible fifth grade realignment part of the town hall discussions, Smith said, adding it only made sense to do so after Joe Siefke officially replaces Thompson as superintendent.

Earlier in the meeting, Treasurer Cindy Shultz delivered a gloomy five-year financial forecast. School treasurers are required to prepare forecasts every spring and fall, and Shultz reported that district spending will have exceeded revenue for the third consecutive year.

According to the report, district spending of $8.87 million is expected to exceed revenue by $709,594 for the 2014 school year, which ends June 30. The only reason the district will not end the school year with a budget deficit is because of the $3.2 million cash balance carried over from the 2013 school year.

This year’s deficit spending will reduce the balance to $2.5 million, and Shultz warned if this continues at the current pace the cash balance – which stood at $3.8 million as recently as 2011 – will disappear sometime during the 2017 school year.

The board has done its part, reducing spending by nearly $800,000 since 2011, but Shultz said other factors are continuing to work against them. For instance, enrollment continues to drop by about 30 students per year, while the number of students coming to Lisbon through open enrollment remains flat. This is important because state funding is based mostly on enrollment, with $5,700 in state aid received for each student.

State funding accounts for 60 percent of Lisbon’s revenue, and the district is the only one in Columbiana County not to receive any additional state money during the current two-year state budget.

Meanwhile, revenue generated by local property taxes, which accounts for 19 percent of the districts funds, increased by only $24,000 this year, to $1.36 million.

Shultz was pleased spending increased by only 2.6 percent this year, given the jump in heating bills due so the harsh winter and other increases beyond their control. “If we could just see a 3 percent increase in revenue we’d be able to break even,” she said.

“Tough decisions are on the horizon, as you are well aware,” Thompson told the board.