SPRINGBORO, Ohio – It’s tempting to describe the financial turnaround that’s taking place in the Springboro school district as something of a miracle.

stuffed piggy bankHow else to describe the district’s dramatic reversal in fortune?

In the span of just four years, Springboro schools have gone from projecting a massive deficit of $28.7 million to planning for a surplus of nearly $7.2 million by 2017.

That’s a swing of nearly $36 million to the district’s benefit.

That’s unheard of during these tough economic times in which many U.S. school districts are cutting student programs, laying off teachers and raising taxes.

Here’s something else that’s unheard of: Instead of just stockpiling the extra money in the district’s bank account, Springboro school board members are preparing to give a portion of it back to taxpayers.

Last month, Springboro board members voted to place a five-year levy renewal on the November ballot that will actually cut taxes by 15 percent, which equals about $1.3 million a year. The levy would shrink the projected surplus by several million dollars, but the once-needy district would still be left with a tidy sum in reserve.

In a press release, Springboro school board President Kelly Kohls told taxpayers that if they pass the levy, the district “will be able to move forward without any type of levy for some time to come.”

It’ll be up to voters whether or not to accept the deal, though it’s difficult to imagine them turning it down.

It’s not just taxpayers who are reaping the benefits from Springboro schools’ improved financial condition. The district just agreed to a new contract with the local teachers union that gives many educators a 12 percent pay raise – through step increases and a base pay increase – over the next two years.

And even though the new contract also increases teachers’ health insurance contributions – from 15 to 20 percent – most teachers will still see their take home pay increase by about 10 percent over the next two school years, according to Kohls.

Springboro families are also getting in on the fun. Over the past couple of years, the district has cut various student fees by 50 percent and its “pay to play” fees for after-school sports by $200.

The district has also purchased new textbooks, added technology to the schools and made improvements to district buildings and grounds.

What kind of budgeting magic is allowing district leaders to do all this?

None, actually.

Springboro’s financial renaissance is the direct result of careful financial planning, coupled with tough votes that pitted reform-minded school board members against the local teachers union, school administrators and their fellow board members.

Critics of the current school board will say the turnaround is due to the additional tax revenue that’s being generated by a new natural gas pipeline – about $3.5 million a year, since 2012 – and the revenue that will come from the second pipeline that’s being installed.

While the first pipeline has certainly helped the bottom line, it’s not the driver of the district’s improved financial picture. And potential revenue generated by the second pipeline was not figured into Springboro’s most recent budget forecast.

‘Children First’ philosophy yields big results

The district’s turnaround started when Kohls joined the Springboro school board in early 2010 and began implementing a “children first” philosophy to K-12 spending.

At first, Kohls was the board’s lone fiscal conservative and her spending reform ideas were met with stiff resistance. But over the last three-and-a-half years, Kohls has won the trust of the community and is currently serving as the board president.

That promotion was made possible after voters sent two more fiscal conservatives – David Petroni and Jim Rigano – to the board in early 2012, giving reformers majority control.

That allowed the reformers’ “children first” philosophy to be implemented in full force. And it’s yielding impressive results.

For example, the district no longer pays administrators’ portion of their retirement fund costs – a savings of $180,000.

The district also started requiring employees to help shoulder more of their health insurance costs. It also joined a health care consortium, which resulted in about $6 million in savings for taxpayers.

One of the biggest changes was the board’s decision to switch to a zero-based budgeting system. Instead of automatically increasing school budgets every year, Springboro leaders only provide schools with additional money if the principal or teachers can identify a specific need.

Union unhappy with smaller levy

Conventional wisdom suggests that Springboro students’ academic performance must be suffering as a result of all these cuts. But the exact opposite is true.

According to Kohls, Springboro’s state test scores and ACT scores have both increased, while the percentage of students who need remedial help has decreased. Springboro schools continue to be honored by the state as “a district of distinction.”

These should be happy days for everyone involved with Springboro Community City Schools – but not everyone is celebrating.

Kohls tells EAGnews some members of the local teachers union and their community supporters aren’t happy with the board’s decision to ask for a reduced levy.

“They think it’s giving back money, and you never do that,” Kohls says, adding that she speaks only for herself, not the board.

She says labor leaders want the district to tax residents at the maximum amount so its bank account is flush with cash when the next teachers’ contract is being negotiated. That way, district leaders won’t have any reason for denying the union its financial requests.

“They always want more,” Kohls says.

A national trend?

Kohls believes school districts across the U.S. could enjoy a similar turnaround, if they’d practice similar financial and leadership principles.

At the core of the board’s “children first” philosophy is the belief that school employees’ compensation – from salaried administrators to hourly support staff – should reflect the community norms.

For example, if the average resident is paying 20 percent of his or her health insurance costs and receiving a 2-3 percent annual raise, that’s what school employees should be getting, too, according to Kohls.

“I won’t agree to a labor contract unless I can look my constituents in the eye and say ‘It’s fair,’” Kohls says.

That doesn’t jibe with school employee unions that are always demanding more, and willing to use pressure tactics to get it.

That leads to Kohls’ second recommendation for other school board members who want to replicate Springboro’s success in their community: Learn the power of ‘No.’

Since most school board members receive only a small salary for their long hours and hard and often contentious work, most are unwilling to stand up to bullying union members and endure their abuse.

They end up giving in to union demands, just to make the unpleasantness stop.

But if a community is serious about fixing its school budget, Kohls says residents and board members have to “stop automatically saying ‘Yes’ to funding a system that’s not working academically or financially.”

“It doesn’t take more money,” she adds. “It takes accountability.”

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