Audit suggests budget cuts to fix Bellbrook schools’ pending shortfall

Superintendent hopes March levy passage will make biggest cuts unnecessary

The Auditor of State’s office this week suggested a set of specific changes at Bellbrook-Sugarcreek schools, two of them drastic, to reduce district spending by $3.03 million per year.

The performance audit was done because the school district projects it will run out of money in two years, and voters rejected a May 2019 levy, according to Auditor Keith Faber’s office. Auditors made most of their budget-cut suggestions by finding areas where Bellbrook spends more than its “peer” school districts.

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But there weren’t enough of those areas or cuts to keep the district solvent through summer 2024, so auditors got to the needed $3.03 million by suggesting a drastic cut in funding for extracurriculars, and recommending personnel savings via a large pay freeze or staffing cut.

“The implementation of all the things they’re recommending, without any additional revenue, will be extremely devastating for our school district,” Superintendent Doug Cozad said Wednesday. “It would strike at the core and change forever the student experiences.”

Performance audit recommendations are non-binding., as auditors say in the document, “The District’s Board of Education and administration are in the best position to determine what services are required to meet the community’s needs.”

The extracurricular funding change and staffing recommendation would have by far the largest dollar impact.

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Bellbrook currently spends about $1.6 million total on extracurriculars like sports, bands, arts and student clubs, according to the audit, with $703,000 of the cost subsidized by the general fund. That’s a bigger subsidy than Bellbrook’s peer districts.

Auditors said they normally recommend reducing the subsidy to the peer average, but given Bellbrook’s financial condition, they recommended cutting that subsidy from $703,000 to zero by increasing pay-to-participate fees and admission fees, reducing coach and advisor pay, or eliminating activities altogether.

Cozad said the district will consider all recommendations, but added that using pay-to-play fees alone to end the subsidy would require a bump from $150 to an extreme $1,000 to $1,200 per sport.

The other big-dollar proposal was in staffing, where three options were presented. Auditors acknowledged Bellbrook is generally not over-staffed compared to peer districts, but they said after all their other recommendations, the district still would need $1.5 million more per year to avoid projected deficits.

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Extending the 2020-21 pay freezes for another three years would only save $851,000 per year. Auditors said a 10.5 percent across-the-board staffing cut, or elimination of 16 full-time teaching positions would save the needed $1.5 million, but “could drastically change service levels within the District.”

Cozad said the document reinforces his claim that the district “has a revenue problem, not a spending problem,” and that it could be addressed by a new tax levy.

The state performance audit says the tax burden on Bellbrook-Sugarcreek residents is lower than the state average, lower than the peer district average and lower than the local peer average, as measured by Ohio’s Local Tax Effort Index.

Cozad said after approving $2.3 million in its own staffing and budget cuts, Bellbrook schools are asking voters to approve a new 5.7-mill tax levy in March. Voters overwhelmingly rejected a levy in May 2019.

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Some levy opponents, led by resident John Stafford, have argued the school district needs to cut teacher pay and benefits, then cap those costs for future years, claiming they are too high.

The state audit includes a “career salary comparison” between Bellbrook and its local peer schools — Beavercreek, Waynesville, Kettering, Centerville and Xenia. It lists Bellbrook’s teacher salary lower than the peer average at four of five possible levels. It also lists Bellbrook’s salaries lower than the peer average for five of six other job areas, such as secretaries, bus drivers, maintenance staff and school aides.

Asked about the audit Wednesday, Stafford said the salary problem is not specific to Bellbrook — that all school districts are taxing property owners to fund teachers unions. He wants it to stop.

“What the audit does is use surrounding districts — you take someone else’s bad decision and use it to justify your own bad decision on pay,” Stafford said. “To sell the levy, the districts say Bellbrook is paying less than or the same as Centerville or Kettering or another district. But those districts are also in trouble.”

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Other recommendations in the state’s Bellbrook schools audit included: eliminating five “full-time equivalent” staff across career tech, counseling, nursing, library and support staff to match “peer district” staffing levels and save $389,000 per year; delaying technology purchases to save $250,000 per year; and renegotiating union contracts (mainly eliminating merit pay tied to state report card performance) to save $197,000 per year.

Cozad said a state auditor’s office representative will be at the Jan. 30 school board meeting to discuss the audit. The school district will also hold community meetings about the tax levy Feb. 3 and Feb. 17.

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