Bellaire Local Schools Emerge From Fiscal Emergency

Photo by Shelley Hanson Ohio Auditor Dave Yost, left, presents a certificate of fiscal integrity for the Bellaire Local School District to board of education President Jason Ayers, center, and Superintendent Darren Jenkins on Monday.

BELLAIRE — After nearly 10 years of state supervision, the Bellaire Local School District finally has local control of its finances again.

The district was released from fiscal emergency on Monday — but not without receiving a warning from Ohio Auditor Dave Yost.

“We are releasing you from supervision today,” Yost said of the oversight that began in 2009. “But I do want to caution you that any number of variables … can cause downstream problems for you. You need to watch that bottom line very carefully.”

Yost noted the board, along with the supervisory body, the Bellaire Financial Planning and Supervision Commission, had to make tough decisions during the past few years.

For example, the board reduced its staff by 60 people, and by making changes to its health insurance saved about $1 million. The board also made reductions to its overhead costs and supplies, “right-sized” its food operations and more.

The district’s operating budget totals about $13 million per year.

Yost noted he could not take a position regarding the upcoming May 2 election during which the district will ask voters to approve a 2.5-mill emergency tax levy.

“Our release today of the district from supervision does not mean everything is hunky-dory. There’s still challenges the district has and the levy before voters is a matter of local choice and we take no position on it,” he said.

The district has tried unsuccessfully several times to get levies approved by voters in the past.

Superintendent Darren Jenkins said he hopes the good news will spur residents of the district to approve the levy. The money would be used restore programs such as elementary art, music and physical education, he said.

“This has been a long time coming. I appreciated his comments and, honestly, I agreed with them,” Jenkins said of Yost after the meeting. “The caution that I would have for everyone in the community is that this does not mean Bellaire is rich. It means Bellaire has balanced its budget. It’s a five-year forecast and that forecast is a snapshot in time. That’s based on fiscal conditions as they existed in February when they did that analysis. It’s volatile — it can change.”

After the meeting, Yost said there is a small minority of school districts in Ohio that go into fiscal emergency.

“It’s rare we see a community rally like this one. There was so much effort and creative thought. I see the turnaround in the way the health care insurance is run, food service. The first thing is to cut staff positions, of course, and everybody hates to do that. But when you start looking at the back-office operations like they did here, that’s thinking harder and smarter, and you don’t always see that get done,” he said.

During the meeting, Yost presented a framed certificate of fiscal integrity.

“Integrity doesn’t mean good. It means everything is together, it’s integrated. This certificate says your books are balanced, your fiscal affairs are integrated and that’s a very good thing. … This is a first step, not a last step, for this district,” he said.

Board of education President Jason Ayers said after many years of work the board finally had “total local control” of the district’s finances once again.

“It’s what we’ve wanted for our district and the community. As long as we stick to our plan, I don’t see a problem,” Ayers said.

Yost also announced during the meeting that Bellaire Local, along with the Shadyside, Bridgeport, Martins Ferry and St. Clairsville school districts, was approved for a grant to allow his office to conduct a feasibility study to determine whether the districts could benefit from combining their transportation support services, such as mechanical work on buses.

“We’re hoping this time next year … we’ll have that feasibility study and that road map forward,” he said. “We’re looking forward to working with you and the other school districts.”

Meanwhile, since the district has emerged from fiscal emergency, board members Ayers, Tom Rataiczak, John LaRoche, William Marinelli and Michael Wallace took action to disband the supervisory commission. Its members included Quentin Potter, Pat Willard, Jacquelyn Osborne, Tracy Lloyd and Robert Vannelli.