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The Mansfield City Schools Board of Education on Nov. 19 is expected to consider spending $900,000 for new technology, even as the district treasurer's five-year financial forecast shows difficult times ahead. (Richland Source file photo)

MANSFIELD -- The Mansfield City Schools Board of Education is expected to consider spending $900,000 for new technology on Nov. 19, even as the district treasurer's five-year financial forecast shows difficult times ahead.

At Tuesday’s special school board meeting, chief academic officer Stephen Rizzo and Fayette Adams, a representative from the district's technology vendor, explained to the board the importance of new technology, including Chromebooks for all of the district's students.

“Our goal is to close the gap in digital access across the district,” Rizzo told the board. “Instead of taking three years, we are asking you to take a big step and close the gap this school year.”

Adams said there are 1,700 Chromebooks in use in the district, most on 30-unit carts shared among classrooms. For every student to have one, she said an additional 565 touch Chromebooks would be needed for children in prekindergarten and first grade, as well as 1,075 more non-touch Chromebooks for grades 3 through 12.

Treasurer Robert Kuehnle, whose financial forecast for the district shows declining district revenues, told Richland Source that 1,640 additional Chromebooks and 174 interactive classroom screens will cost an estimated $900,000.

Board president Renda Cline, who was re-elected on Tuesday, said state tests are now computerized and the district must prepare its students for the future.

“I’m not prepared to discuss how we will pay for it,” Cline said. “I think it needs to be done immediately and we need to find a way to be solvent. It doesn’t make sense for us to wait on this. So if you’re asking me if I want to wait — no. We need to support our students now and prepare them for the future.”

Board member Chris Elswick asked Kuehnle to look for ways to pay for the technology, which could include various elements of the district's general fund, permanent improvement funds and money set aside to replace the turf at Arlin Field. 

"There is still lots of discussion of how we will pay for it,” said Kuehnle, adding he will present options to the board on Nov. 19.

First-year Superintendent Stan Jefferson, who initiated Tuesday’s discussion, said the district's goal is academic rigor. He recommended all students have their own Chromebooks, which are laptop-type computers capable of containing textbooks, supplemental material, videos and lesson assignments.

“Technology is the key to that,” he said Tuesday.

Jefferson could not be reached for comment on this story at the time of publication.

Kuehnle's five-year financial projection shows the district's annual general fund revenues declining more than $3 million over the next five years, dropping to $57.7 million in 2024 from the anticipated $60.9 million in 2019.

Expenditures, conversely, are projected to rise $8 million during the same period, climbing to $68.5 million in 2024 from $60.5 million in 2019.

Kuehnle anticipates an ending balance of $13 million in 2020. He projects a $6.3 million deficit by the end of 2024, assuming current levies are renewed in 2023. Should those levies not be renewed, the projected deficit could nearly double, according to his projections.

"We'd been getting a 3-percent increase in revenue every year from the state," Kuehnle said. "With the new governor's plan, the district didn't get any (additional) money. Revenue looks like it's down, but it's nothing that we did.”

The Ohio legislature’s latest biennial budget did not include an increase in general operating expense funding for schools, but did include new student wellness and success funding, which can only be used in certain ways.

Board vice president Gary Feagin said the board has not discussed the five-year forecast.

"But at the presentation, they showed us that one-to-one computers are vital for kids (to learn) to compete in this market," he said. "It's vital we do this for them. The board, our superintendent, treasurer,  and administrators will have to figure out a way to pay for this."

Feagin added Kuehnle is expected to present options that will not include the general fund.

The impact could lead to consolidating classrooms. This possibility was explained in detail earlier this month by a representative from Fanning Howey, an integrated architecture, interiors and engineering firm. At the Oct. 8 board meeting, that discussion examined the school's buildings and potential for restructuring class sizes to include more students per classroom.

"Hypothetically," Kuehnle said, "if we were to condense classrooms like that, it would lead to less staff being needed."

Kuehnle added staff size has seen an increase for "a whole host of reasons." According to his forecast, almost 61 percent of general fund expenses go to employee salaries/wages and benefits.

Those employee costs would grow by 12 percent over the next five years, according to the forecast, including $3.4 million in salaries/wages and $1.2 million in benefits.

In spring of 2019, the board of education approved an employment agreement with the Mansfield Schools Education Association (teachers, custodians, para professionals, secretaries and food service) and Teamsters (bus drivers).

According to the forecast, those agreements include a 5-percent increase on the base salary in the 2020 fiscal year and a 2.5-percent increase in fiscal years 2021 and 2022. The forecast assumes a 1-percent increase on the entire category's dollar figure for the two remaining years.

Also in 2019, the board of education offered a retirement incentive for all employees. The savings from this plan will be incorporated into fiscal year 2020 salary projections.

"Educationally, there are still good things going on, but they have a cost -- expenses are going up,” Kuehnle said. 

Kuehnle also said a major drain on the budget is students going to private schools as part of the state's expanding EdChoice scholarship program.

"If they (students) go to a private school in the district, like St. Peter's Catholic School or Mansfield Christian, they get a voucher from MCS tax money. In high school, it's $6,000 per student," Kuehnle said explaining a large school expenditure. "That increase alone is over $250,000.”

Also adding to the costs of the district is the new Hedges Alternative School, which will be run by former superintendent Brian Garverick.

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Staff Reporter

Noah Jones is host to The Open Mic Podcast -- available on Apple Podcasts! He is the crime, education and music reporter for Richland Source. He is a native of St. Louis, Missouri and a giant Cardinals fan.