Enrollment cuts could save Fitch $25K a year

AUSTINTOWN — The Austintown schools superintendent said a performance audit issued by the state suggesting the district cut more than 550 open enrollment positions, reduce staff and shut down buildings to save about $25,000 a year reflects a difference in philosophy between state accountants and the values of the district.

The audit of the Austintown Local School District made 13 recommendations to the school system to save money. Superintendent Vince Colaluca said the district already began implementing some, and others he said don’t make sense from his perspective.

One of those suggestions was that the district cut back its number of open enrollment students from 686 to about 130. Open enrollment makes up approximtaely 13 percent of the student population. The move would recoup about $25,000 a year the auditors suggested the school is losing because those students are only receiving per pupil cash from the state and not any from local levies, while still providing the same educational standards at the same cost.

Colaluca said the math might make accounting sense in a five-year forecast, but overlooks the fact that open enrollment students are bringing in more than $5,800 each for the district. The audit suggests the savings would come from the district’s ability to cut staff and close facilities if fewer students were enrolled.

The money from the open enrollment students is what has kept the district afloat since the state put the brakes on school funding since Gov. John Kasich took office, Colaluca said.

“We have a different philosophy, a different approach,” Colaluca said. “If we lost 500 students, we would have staff cuts, we might lose our (advanced placement) program, our STEM program, require, like other schools have, pay-to-play in sports, maybe cut arts and music at the elementary level. We control our expenditures and ensure revenue by bringing in open enrollment students.”

Colaluca said if the school system was in financial trouble, they would be obligated to pursue the recommendations from the the Auditor of State, but they are not.

“We’ve had no new operating revenue, except open enrollment, since 1996. That’s 20 years. As long as we are in the black, as long as we are sustaining, I don’t see why we would do something drastic like that,” Colaluca said.

A sudden cancellation of open enrollment would have deep ramifications in Austintown, Colaluca said. That would be 500 less families going through the town and spending their money on a weekly basis, the community would lose jobs if teachers were cut, and the lack of revenue would surely damage the quality of education the district is known for providing, Colaluca said.

Open enrollemnt pays to fill seats in programs that might not have enough participants to justify paying for otherwise and helps the the district balance the overall budget, Colaluca said.

The district has done a good job of managing class sizes and expenses through careful budgeting, even if the state would do it differently, he said.

Not only is the school’s athletic program a success regionally, its academics are too, Colaluca said.

Colaluca said he will bring some of the recommendations to the school board for consideration and some of the ideas the auditors released to the district earlier this year already have been implemented.

The audit recommended a reduction of about 53 hours in the food service division to get the district on point with comparative districts, and changes they made across schools this year cut the hours back by 44. One position was eliminated and another was reduced to part time.

The report also recommended cutting funding to extracurricular activities, something Colaluca said would damage the value of education the students in the district receive. Other recommendations include increasing employee dental contributions to save $43,000 annually, creating a bus maintenance and replacement schedule, and developing a facilities master plan. Colaluca said he would take the recommendations to the board for their consideration, reiterating that they can pick and chose from the recommendations, as long as they keep their budget in the black, as they have been doing.