“In great shape” is how treasurer Barbara Donohue describes the Amherst Schools financial outlook for the next five years.
The district is financially stable through 2022, provided voters renew an existing operating levy on the 2021 ballot, she reported Feb. 12 to the board of education.
Twice each year, Donohue’s office prepares a long-range forecast for the state showing expected income and spending. The analysis weighs property taxes, health insurance, construction costs, proposed levies, and other factors that could hurt the or help the budget.
The current picture takes into account savings from the closure of Harris Elementary School this year. During construction of a new PK-3 building on South Lake Street, the district will see lower utilities, gas, snow plowing, salting, trash removal, mowing, staff, and insurance costs, Donohue said.
Amherst has the third-lowest property taxes of any school system in Lorain County, she said, behind only Firelands and Wellington. The latter also has an income tax to support its schools, which Amherst does not.
“We don’t see any new taxes in the near future, like five years for sure,” she said.
The Amherst Schools do have concerns, though.
For example, more students choose to open enroll outside the district than those who open enroll into it. Right now, there is a cap on how many outside students the district can accept because space is tight with Harris demolished.
Overall enrollment is also down, and with it state funding. That’s a natural cycle all districts weather as the housing market booms or stalls, and superintendent Steven Sayers said he expects the decline to last another four or five years before enrollment starts to climb again.
“We’ve worked very hard over the last several years to make sure staffing matches declining enrollment” to control costs, he said. With few exceptions, the district’s workforce has been cut through retirements, not layoffs.
For the next few years, the Amherst Schools will also spend about $2 million more annually than they earn.
Don’t be alarmed — that’s also a cyclical process resulting from how levies and property values interact under Ohio’s laws. Donohue doesn’t anticipate a deficit because Amherst has a robust surplus.
There’s always a bubble created immediately after a levy passes, and the district has been quietly saving to stretch its dollars as far as possible.
Predicting the health of the school system’s budget is an ever-changing process. It doesn’t take into account surprise funding cuts by state legislators, union negotiations, or unforeseeable catastrophes.
School board member Ron Yacobozzi praised Donohue’s office, saying the district’s stability didn’t happen by chance or overnight.
“It’s taken a good 10 years to get here,” added board member Rex Engle.
A decade ago, the Amherst Schools were in a very different position and only the willingness of voters to pass an emergency operating levy saved the day.
Jason Hawk can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @EditorHawk on Twitter.