Liberty School District needs to get creative

It’s time for Liberty Schools leaders to think outside the box.

With the help of a state fiscal oversight commission, Liberty has erased a $1 million-plus debt, is repaying a $1.8 million state loan, and the financially beleaguered district has a balanced budget. But projecting five years ahead, the district will be back in the red, so the oversight commission is recommending and Superintendent Stan Watson is expected to place a levy on the ballot next year.

The chances of passing a levy in the highest-taxed community in Trumbull County is pretty much nil. Liberty voters have routinely rejected township and school levies for many years. Not long ago, voters handed Liberty Schools what some say might be the worst levy defeat in Ohio history (no records on such data are handy).

Perhaps a more radical future is necessary.

The Midland, Pa., model is still out there. Midland dissolved its school district, and the community responded with the $23 million Lincoln Park Performing Arts Charter School, a public-private partnership that offers a unique, free public school education.

There was no tax increase in Midland.

Perhaps instead of something completely new, like Lincoln Park, the Liberty Board of Education can create a partnership with the Youngstown Diocese. As the diocese considers moving Cardinal Mooney High School from the city to suburban Boardman in the south, there might be a desire to move Ursuline High School from the city to a northern suburb, such as Liberty.

Maybe, instead of new construction, Liberty sells its high school to the diocese for a new Ursuline and in return, the diocese provides free or nearly free tuition to Liberty students. Liberty could then use the money to stabilize its K-8 schools.

The township would want to provide some incentive for this as well, since a free or nearly free private high school education would make moving into the township desirable for many families. The township could see a sharp population increase and a corresponding uptick in property values, both of which translate into higher tax collections.

Likewise, the district’s K-8 enrollment would flourish, open enrollment losses would shrink and more state funding would result.

Of course, the Midland plan, an Ursuline partnership or some other outside-the-box resolution requires considerable work and probably help from the outside, such as the state legislature. It might be worth it.

Meanwhile, some simpler cost-saving measures have yet to be implemented. The district is not sharing services such as snow plowing, maintenance, secretarial staff, buildings, etc., with the township. The district has not shared transportation to the Trumbull Career and Technical Center or private schools. The district has not found an alternative, nor has it pressed for a change, in the 2.4-mill TCTC levy.

But Watson, Liberty’s board and the state commission should realize that fixing Liberty’s problem with a levy is playing a long shot, – a really big long shot. And the usual response – cuts, cuts, cuts – is detrimental to education.