Dayton school board members and district employees listen to a financial report from Treasurer Hiwot Abraha (seated, front right) on Tuesday, May 29, 2018. JEREMY P. KELLEY / STAFF

5 things to know about Dayton schools’ better-than-expected budget situation

Superintendent Elizabeth Lolli acknowledged Tuesday that updated information from Dayton Public Schools Treasurer Hiwot Abraha means putting a levy on the ballot soon seems unlikely.

Lolli said she “probably shouldn’t have said two weeks ago” that DPS would pursue a tax levy in the near future, given incomplete financial data.

Here are five things to know about the school district’s finances:

Spending changes

Abraha told the school board Tuesday that the district will end up spending about $246 million from its general fund for the school year that is wrapping up. That’s slightly higher than last year’s $242 million, but far below the $263 million the district projected last fall.

The majority of that $17.3 difference comes in wages and benefits, where Dayton Public Schools now estimates it will spend $127 million, rather than $140 million.

Lolli said her previous comments about a levy in the near future are out of date given the new information.

“I’m not in a position to even say now that what I said two weeks ago is even correct any longer because I’ve seen the actual (financials) now,” Lolli said. “Two weeks ago we didn’t quite have the actuals.”

Reason for the change

Abraha wrote in her five-year financial forecast that, “Wages were lower than planned in FY18 due to over 150 positions remaining unfilled.”

Lolli said many of the positions left vacant this year were teaching jobs, which were filled by cheaper, long-term subs. She said the district has already been aggressive in hiring – especially for much-needed intervention specialists who work with special needs students.

“One of things we tried to do with the salary increase for teaching staff, as well as the adjustment for our administrative team, is to make sure that we don’t have those kinds of vacancies,” Lolli said. “To make sure that we can recruit people to fill the positions and make sure we don’t lose teachers to other districts that can pay them more.”

In the black, again

With spending coming in far below projections, Dayton Public Schools is now projected to finish $20 million in the black for 2017-18 (the school fiscal year does not end until June 30). That comes on the heels of 2016 and 2017, which ended with annual surpluses of $17.3 million, $16.4 million.

Abraha said recently that new union contracts with retroactive or “make-up” raises will not put the district in financial jeopardy. She also told the school board that DPS has saved millions since it switched to a self-insurance system, and hopes to transfer $13 million from that program to the general fund.

“We are in good financial condition really,” Abraha said in early May. “Our fund balances are good.”

Revenue sources

Lolli has pointed out in recent weeks that DPS had not had an increase in local revenue since a levy in 2008. That puts it on par with Huber Heights and Jefferson Twp., but behind most Montgomery County schools, some of whom have seen residents pass three levies since Dayton passed its last one.

Nonetheless, Abraha said DPS revenues have been steadily rising in recent years because of increases in state funding, which she said makes up 74 percent of general fund revenue

There are multiple state funding streams, but the most basic – unrestricted grants in aid – increased from $142 million to $172 million from 2015 to 2018.

Watching the future

Lolli said the district is working to fill its vacant positions, which will increase spending, and added DPS will have to watch next year’s state budget process carefully because so much of DPS’ funding comes from the state foundation.

Abraha said the biggest threat to DPS finances, outside of the state budget, would be a decline in the local tax base, or an enrollment decline. Of the 22,500 students who live in the DPS geography according to state data, the district already loses about 6,550 to charter schools, 2,650 to private-school vouchers and 900 via open enrollment to other school districts – more than 10,000 students total.

Abraha’s forecast projects a huge jump in spending for 2018-19, to $278 million, after back-to-back years in the $240s. Whether those numbers pan out will depend on enrollment changes and the staffing that ensues.

Board member Karen Wick-Gagnet supported Lolli’s approach to higher salaries, calling her highly qualified as a superintendent, and urging the rest of the board to “support her and let her lead our district.”

“If we want our district to be competitive, to grow, if we want to attract new students, we need to maintain our teaching staff … and pay our staff (in line with) other districts,” Wick-Gagnet said.

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