Recent cuts to public-education funding announced by Gov. Mike DeWine no doubt will impact Olentangy Schools.
But past budgeting, the fact the district is heavily funded by local taxes and the approval by voters of a ballot package, including a 7.4-mill operating levy, on the April ballot will allow the district to cope with the uncertainty, district officials said.
The Olentangy school board approved its latest five-year forecast during its May 26 virtual meeting.
Impacted by the passage of the tax issue and the nearly $3 million state-funding cut, the forecast shows negative revenue vs. expenditures each year through fiscal year 2024 – fluctuating from a negative cash flow of $862,901 in fiscal year 2020, negative $62,990 in fiscal year 2022 and negative $27,838,540 in fiscal year 2024 – but a positive cash balance at the end of each fiscal year.
That cash balance decreases from $86,384,483 at the end of the current fiscal year to $47,221,200 at the close of fiscal year 2024 – a balance that, district treasurer Emily Hatfield said, continues to meet the board and administration informal marker of having at least two months of operating cash on hand.
“There are a lot of unknowns about where we’re going to be from a state-funding standpoint over the next few years and the impact of things like, what does our return to school in the fall look like,” Hatfield said. “We didn’t want to hit the panic button. We have operational savings that can cover the state revenue loss, so we didn’t want to hit the panic button.”
Superintendent Mark Raiff told board members as much May 26, discussing adjusted hiring plans and other operational costs that would allow the district to “manage to the number and stretch this levy as far as we can.”
Required by law to be submitted to the Ohio Department of Education twice annually, forecasts are approved in the spring and fall.
“It’s a planning document, but not the Bible. The info is only as good as today,” board member Julie Wagner Feasel said. “But we do have to look forward, with best-guess assumptions, so that we’re able to properly prepare and our residents can see where we’re going to be.”
For example, the forecast shows that “we will not be back on the ballot (for operating funds) for the promised three years, and maybe four if things hold,” Feasel said.
“Levy cycles are part of our reality as a locally funded district,” Hatfield said.
Local taxes make up 94% of the district’s annual revenue, Hatfield said. Funding received from the state is based on a formula that looks at median income and property values, both of which are strong in Olentangy, she said.
“Essentially, the state tells us, ‘You can afford to raise more taxes to continue to operate the way you do,’ ” Hatfield said. “Our taxpayers gets frustrated.”
Feasel said district representatives have advocated for changes to the funding formula at the state level since she’s been on the board.
She said district leadership had intended, if the most recent levy was approved, to intensify its efforts on the state-funding model, but she anticipates the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic will relegate those efforts to the backburner, given the economic impact on state coffers.
“The state has taken a hit, so we’ll have to wait and see,” Feasel said. “Fortunately, we’re in a position to do so.”
Hatfield said it’s impossible to gauge the long-term impact of the current state budget crisis on school funding over the next few years, but said she has lowered amounts reflected in the forecast in a conservative approach.
Other factors that could impact the district’s financial picture include reduced income on district investments because of the pandemic; delays in property-tax collection by counties looking to give property owners a reprieve in response to COVID-19 (although Hatfield said that likely would be more of a cash-flow timing issue than overall income impact); and upcoming contract negotiations with employee unions.
Residents will continue to carry the burden of school funding in Olentangy, Feasel said, even if a fairer system of state funding is reached.
But, she said, voters’ support for schools is encouraging in a district that hasn’t rejected a ballot issue since 1998.
“Our voters really understand the value of the education we’re providing,” she said.
“Without our community’s support,” Hatfield said, “this could have been a very different conversation.”