By Ben Velderman
SPRINGBORO, Ohio – When Gene Lolli recently announced that he will resign as Springboro Community City Schools’ superintendent at the end of the school year, he made it clear it was due to philosophical differences with several school board members.
“Obviously, when your philosophy doesn’t match that of the majority of the members of the board of education, then it’s time to move on,” Lolli told the local newspaper.
Lolli’s comments weren’t surprising. Members of Springboro’s education establishment – administrators, union leaders and board officials – have been complaining about the district’s new philosophy for the past couple of years.
Springboro’s old philosophy was like that of many public school districts: Teachers were given annual “step” raises and administrators received nice salary perks, whether there was money in the district’s budget or not. If the district couldn’t afford it, voters were expected to approve tax hikes to pay for it all, or accept cuts to student services.
That old “adults first” approach was on full display in 2009, when district officials chose to address their financial woes by eliminating busing for high school students, laying off 30 district employees, and raising pay-to-play fees for after school activities.
Not long after that, Kelly Kohls, a mother of five and a former college professor, joined the Springboro school board and a new “children first” philosophy began to emerge.
Immediately upon joining the board, Kohls began challenging district orthodoxy – especially on spending decisions – to ensure the needs of students were being given priority.
“We say we’re here for the children,” Kohls tells EAGnews. “I’ve just been asking how these (spending) decisions match the rhetoric.”
Kohls’ approach of challenging the “business as usual” mindset has proven very effective. The district now requires employees to contribute more for their health insurance plans. Backdoor bonuses for administrators have been eliminated, annual teacher “step” raises have been frozen, and a variety of spending cuts have been implemented.
The results are evident in the school’s financial trajectory. A few years ago the district was projecting a $30 million deficit. Today it’s projecting a $4 million surplus, even though the community is still reeling from the weak economy, which has caused a 400 percent increase in the number of people needing assistance from the local food bank, according to Kohls.
Kohls’ self-described “kids first” approach has caused a lot of heartburn among Springboro’s school establishment. During her brief tenure on the board, district officials have publicly blamed Kohls for the defeat of a $6 million school levy, the departures of a superintendent, a district treasurer, a school board president and the large turnover in school administrators.
Members of the Springboro Education Association – the local teachers union – use school board meetings to excoriate Kohls for opposing teacher pay raises and proposing budget cuts.
“Some people get so entrenched in the old philosophy that it’s tough to get them to think whether or not something is going to help the kids,” Kohls says of the criticism. “We need a different way of thinking.”
Voters seem to agree. Last November, they elected two of Kohls’ allies, giving fiscal conservatives control of the five-member school board, which began its current term in January.
Asking tough questions
Kohls says her approach has been to “ask a lot of questions” and to explain the board’s spending decisions to the community.
During her campaign for school board, for instance, Kohls asked why Springboro taxpayers were paying both the district’s and administrators’ contributions to the state retirement fund, especially since high school busing had just been cut to save money.
She reasoned that the amount of money spent on the retirement perk ($180,000) should be used to reinstate high school busing ($125,000). Kohls shared her proposal with the community on the Educate Springboro website and now the administrative perk is gone.
When the district’s health insurance costs increased by $830,000, Kohls proposed that employee contributions be raised to 20 percent – in line with what average Springboro residents paid – to offset the extra costs. She thought it made sense, especially since the district was in the middle of a financial emergency that left schools unable to purchase new textbooks or make basic building repairs. Her fellow board members at the time didn’t agree, and the district absorbed the increase.
But Kohls used the Educate Springboro website to bring her case to the public, and the philosophical shift became evident.
“People started looking at the other four board members, and asked, ‘How could you say yes to the increase?’” Kohls says.
Today, employees pay 15 percent of their health insurance costs, and the district has joined a health care consortium which has resulted in nearly $6 million in savings.
The common sense budget decisions are “adding up to an impressive amount of money,” Kohls says.
A little help from her friends
David Petroni and Jim Rigano have been instrumental in helping Kohls get the district’s spending information to the community, via the Educate Springboro website.
The Educate Springboro trio has not only publicized district information, but has offered budget alternatives to taxpayers.
For instance, when the school board asked taxpayers to approve a $6 million school levy in 2010, Educate Springboro proposed a 12-step savings plan that would make the new levy unnecessary. It also published a newsletter publicizing the savings plan, which included freezing salary and non-salary expenditures, switching to a health care consortium and limiting new hires.
Not only did voters reject the levy (for the fifth consecutive time), but they elected Petroni and Rigano to the school board. The new members began their four-year term in January, giving the Educate Springboro trio a 3-2 voting edge.
Eight of Educate Springboro’s 12 recommendations have been implemented, either in full or in part.
“We’re in a very different place,” Kohls notes.
Since January, the new board has enshrined its “children first” philosophy in a series of 28 goals, which include setting district money aside to help prepare students for the ACT test, among other things.
The board has switched to zero-based budgeting, meaning that school budgets will not automatically increase every year. Instead, teachers are being asked to submit annual budgets outlining specific resources they need.
The board is also developing policies that prioritize district spending, to ensure that student-centered spending needs are met before employee benefits and wage increases are considered. Kohls is crafting a point system to determine which employees will receive bonuses from the leftover funds.
This new approach will likely be challenged when the local teachers union begins negotiating a new collective bargaining contract sometime next year.
Kohls is also up for re-election in 2013 and expects an all-out effort from the education establishment to unseat her.
“Honestly, I might not get re-elected. But that’s not the end game,” she says.
For Kohls, the objective is to re-establish the needs of children at the center of public education. And if it means ruffling some feathers – and searching for a new superintendent – so be it.
“I’m convinced there’s got to be a philosophy shift. And that requires board members who are willing to stay thick-skinned and stiff-backed in the midst of what is oftentimes mean-spirited resistance,” Kohls says.
“And community members need to support them,” Kohls adds. “I need to see a few friendly faces in the crowd at school board meetings.”