Howland Local Schools facing challenges

Howland Local School District’s five-year forecast is projecting a steady decline in year-end balances, leading to a projected deficit of $465,000 by 2020 and growing to more than $17 million by 2022, if spending and revenue remain on the current path.

Concern over spending is one of the reasons challenger Julie Altawil is seeking a seat on the Howland Board of Education. It is Altawil’s first run for any type of political office, and the time she has spent doing research is very impressive. She has become knowledgeable on district finances, school report cards, graduation rates and even has spent time attending numerous board of education meetings at neighboring districts, just to get ideas.

Altawil is adamant that the district needs to work harder at improving its four-year graduation rate of 88 percent, preparing graduates for success — a category in which Howland scored a D on statewide report cards, and developing a strategic plan for upgrading and improving school buildings. She also believes there is much room for improvement in transparency and openness, based on what she has noted in other neighboring districts.

We believe the questions she is raising, her ideas and no-nonsense attitude would bring a good challenge to the status quo of this board. These things, coupled with her obvious dedication, make her an excellent candidate for the board.

Howland Local School District Board of Education incumbents Ken Jones and Matthew Darrin also shared excellent understanding and much institutional knowledge of the school district’s operations and spending.

They attribute the looming deficits to coming adjustments in state funding, including the loss of millions of dollars in tangible personal property tax that the district currently receives.

In attempts to cut expenses, the existing board has worked with a consortium for purchasing and shared services. We believe they are on the right track but need to find new ways to dig deeper at cost savings and regionalized efforts.

This year, salaries will comprise 56.3 percent of the district’s spending, and employee benefits make up nearly 20 percent more. By 2022, salaries are projected to make up only 51.8 percent of the district’s spending, but benefit costs will grow to 28.5 percent. These figures exhibit a logical place to seek cuts in spending.

When asked, Jones defended this year’s controversial 12 percent salary increase given to district superintendent Kevin Spicher. Jones said the increase to $112,000 locked Spicher into a lengthy five-year contract that calls for no further wage increases and keeps him at a salary he described as comparable to others in the region.

Of course we question the wisdom of such a significant pay increase for anyone, but appreciate that Jones offered a matter-of-fact explanation and and outlined the thought process that went into the decision.

We understand constraints created by aging buildings and limited budgets, and are pleased that the district has found a way to offer all-day kindergarten without significant increases in spending. We also believe that the district is moving in the right direction with the new elementary building re-alignments.

We know, however, that it will take hard work and diplomacy to find ways to compensate for the impending loss of tangible personal property tax funds.

Of the six candidates seeking this office, we would feel most confident in the district’s future under the guidance of Altawil, Jones and Darrin. We endorse them for the three Howland Board of Education seats available on Tuesday.