Schools waiting on ‘complicated and scary’ state process to set their budgets

Butler County school districts are entering a period of financial uncertainty that school treasurers have begrudgingly learned is a regular part of the state’s two-year budgeting process.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine is expected to unveil his first proposed, biennium budget next month, and it will formally kick off a long and complicated series of negotiations, committee hearings and legislative compromises before a final budget is required to be done by June 30.

But for area school officials watching largely from the outside, the coming months will require patience and steady nerves.

“The state funding issue is complicated and scary,” said Holli Morrish, spokeswoman for Talawanda Schools. “We know that there are always winners and losers.”

MORE: DeWine plans to make at-risk kids top priority as governor

And adding to the tension is having a new governor with possibly new ideas on how to calibrate the complicated state’s school funding formula for local schools, officials said.

Randy Bertram, treasurer of Middletown Schools, said “we as school district treasurers do our best to predict and forecast future state funding but when a change in the governorship and administration is coming into the statehouse, it increases the (likelihood) of changes and variances in our efforts.”

State funding varies widely for each of Ohio’s school districts, with the remaining portions of operating funds coming from local school taxes, federal funding, grants and private funds.

“Every two years when I have to wait for the completion of the biennium budget to know what our funding will be for those two years, it causes delays in some decisions so we can make sure we will be getting the funding necessary to execute those decisions,” said Bertram, whose school system’s annual budget of $76 million includes more than 50 percent of state money.

Jenni Logan handles the finances for Butler County’s largest school system, the 16,500-student Lakota Schools, and is a veteran of the once-every-two-year process.

A former Ohio School Treasurer of the Year, Logan is often consulted by local state legislators as the state officials often try to fine tune the school funding formula toward more equitable distribution.

“The state biennium process in always more interesting when a new governor takes over. We are awaiting his budget proposal to kick off this process (and) this will occur no later than March 15,” said Logan. “We remained engaged in the process by talking to our local legislators as well as the ones in key leadership positions.”

Logan said she is one of eight school district treasurers among Ohio’s 213 public school systems on school funding group working with Ohio Reps. Robert Cupp (R-Lima) and John Patterson (D-Ashtabula) “to help find solutions to school funding in the state.”

For some local districts who are planning to put local school tax hikes on the May ballot, the coming budget season is even tougher to predict.

Officials in Ross Schools plan to ask voters to approve a 0.5 percent hike to an existing .75 percent income tax during the state budgeting time window. The same proposed school tax was rejected by voters in November.

“Our funding sources stay flat for the foreseeable future (2018-23) based on our (state-required) five-year forecast,” said Ross Schools Superintendent Scott Gates.

“Total revenue from our existing funding is projected to increase by less than $100,000 annually from 2018 to 2023. During that same time period, forecast expenditures rise over $1 million,” said Gates.

“That leaves two options: Make significant budget adjustments to the district’s programming that has made us a premier district in Butler County or increase revenue by asking for a tax increase for additional operating dollars for the first time in over 10 years,” he said.

But veteran treasurer Robert Hancock, who handles finances for Hamilton schools, welcomes the coming challenges.

“Ironically, the biennial budget process is something I have come to enjoy,” said Hancock who has helped Hamilton Schools avoid asking its residents for a new operating tax since 1993.

“As treasurer, I have the opportunity to evaluate the financial impact of various proposals during the budget process. That information is then shared with our legislators and when needed, we testify on specific financial issues before Ohio House or Senate committees,” said Hancock.

About the Author