Niles City Schools continues to spiral toward a painful fiscal emergency that will be far more disruptive than necessary because of so many ill-conceived decisions.
The school board is scheduled to hold a special meeting at 5 p.m. today to address a reduction in force that should have happened a long, long time ago. The result of today's meeting could blunt the pain, or place the district on the brink of extinction.
It's that bad.
Niles already offers one of the worst values in education. It has one of the highest tax rates in Trumbull County at about $1,300 for every $100,000 in property value, but delivers only effective ratings in academic performance. In fact, its current effective rating is the best Niles has attained in many years.
Expenses are outpacing revenue. Since the already-high tax rate leaves a levy increase pretty much out of the question, the only solution is to cut costs.
The best opportunity came last year when employee contracts expired. But knowing that new contracts would not be as good as the existing ones, the employees didn't accept concessions and kept right on working under the old pact that requires zero worker contribution toward health care premiums, zero contribution toward health care deductibles and a mere $10 doctor visit co-pay.
While these outrageous benefits erode the finances with each passing day, the taxpayers themselves share in the blame for the impending doom. They voted for school board member Christopher Doutt who, as part of his campaign, said the health care benefits for teachers should not change and that ''The community has to pay to serve the children.''
Sure enough, last month when the school board voted 3-2 to cut 19 non-teaching employees, it deadlocked 2-2-1 to lay off 15 teachers. Doutt and Susan Longacre voted against both measures. Richard Limongi, presumably because his wife is a teacher, abstained from voting on the teacher cuts.
The non-teachers may now have the right to exercise a ''me-too'' option, forcing the board to rescind its reduction in force at tonight's meeting. That means the cuts when the state takes over, and the state will take over next year according to Superintendent Mark Robinson, will be much greater and the community will have little to no say in what gets axed. In fact, the finances could be so pitiful by then (a $1.7 million defict is projected) that the very existence of the district could be in jeopardy, much like the situation Liberty faces currently.
The deficit may be conservative because it can't account for how many students will leave the district after the state begins whacking staff and programs. Niles already loses about $30,000 per year to open enrollment.
It didn't help that when it hired Robinson the school board made him one of the highest paid public servants in the Mahoning Valley, even though the fiscal crisis was well known. That caused unnecessary labor tension with union employees. And it doesn't help that school employees act childishly, such as turning their backs on the board members while sitting in the audience during public proceedings.
Attitudes, as much as poor decisions, are spelling doom for Niles schools.