Service centers

Changes to the way educational service centers are funded are aimed at providing more flexibility to school districts, but some local leaders say it could do more harm than good.

“By cutting the funding to these vital organizations, they are increasing the costs to the local districts and the local taxpayers,” Belpre City Schools Superintendent Tony Dunn said.

Educational service centers provide services such as professional development, curriculum and gifted supervision, speech and physical therapy and preschool to school districts. Under Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s budget proposal, state funding to these entities would be cut by 22.5 percent in fiscal year 2014 and 27.25 percent in fiscal year 2015. In addition, automatic deductions from school districts for services required by law to be obtained from the ESCs would instead remain with the districts.

“These funds … will allow districts to fund programs they choose and contract with ESCs in the manner they best see fit,” Kasich spokesman Rob Nichols said.

In testimony before the Ohio House of Representatives’ Finance and Appropriations Sub-Committee on Primary and Secondary Education this week, Wolf Creek Local Superintendent Bob Caldwell said that might sound reasonable at first blush. But because the services would be chosen annually, it would create great uncertainty for the ESCs and their employees, he said.

Caldwell said he believes that would lead to a loss of quality employees, like those who train Wolf Creek employees to guide co-workers in “best practices” and “21st century teaching techniques,” because they would be laid off until the amount of service requested by local districts was known.

“People aren’t going to be laid off annually and then wait to be re-employed,” he said.

Washington County’s districts are served primarily by the Ohio Valley Educational Service Center, which is based in Cambridge but has a satellite facility in Marietta at the former Fairview School.

Ohio Valley ESC Treasurer Megan Atkinson said they stand to lose 91 percent of their state funding over the next two years if the current proposal passes unchanged. That amounts to nearly $2.6 million, or almost a quarter of the center’s $10.4 million fiscal year 2012 budget.

“The biggest effect is going to be that it would make it very difficult to retain our people … that allow us to provide the necessary services to our school districts,” said Ohio Valley ESC Superintendent Chris Keylor, who did not specifically mention annual layoffs. “A lot of those subsidy dollars, you’re looking at what basically pays our bills as an organization.”

A good deal of the money that would be cut – $2,245,737 – already returns to the districts by offsetting costs for services, Atkinson said.

“That is not all money that we get to keep,” she said.

The largest portion of the loss to Ohio Valley ESC – about $1.67 million – would be from a change in the way preschool services for identified special needs students are funded. Instead of funding preschool programs through ESCs based on the number of classrooms, districts would receive $4,000 per student, along with additional funding based on a student’s disability.

Hope Schott, a special education preschool teacher employed by the Ohio Valley ESC, teaches such a class at Harmar Elementary School in Marietta. Schott said the situation has her concerned about the children she works with, although districts would be required to provide the services whether through an organization like the ESC or on their own. She’s also uncertain about her own future as she approaches retirement.

“I guess I would have to hope that if something happened to the ESC one of the school districts would employ me,” she said. “I would love to finish my teaching experience with the ESC right here at Harmar School.”

The bulk of the ESC’s budget comes from money paid for services rendered. The new plan would not prohibit districts from getting those services from their current providers.

“The districts can continue to purchase these services and the state will make the transfers, but it will have to be through negotiated contracts,” Nichols said.

Marietta City Schools Superintendent Harry Fleming said if the funding change goes through, he does not foresee the district going elsewhere for its services.

“(It) won’t affect the relationship we have with the ESC,” he said. “They do a nice job for us.”

But to maintain the same level of service and operation offered now, Keylor said the ESC would have to find ways to increase its revenue stream. That means finding new services – which ESCs could market directly to local government entities under the proposed legislation – or increasing revenue, something Atkinson said the ESC would prefer not to do.

“A lot of our districts are already doing everything they can to be fiscally responsible,” Keylor said.

Ohio Senate Education Chairwoman Peggy Lehner, R-Kettering, told the Associated Press that quality differs among service centers and the new system would allow districts to choose from whom they get service rather than being automatically linked with an ESC.

Those not providing quality services “will have to step up what they’re doing or find themselves going out of business,” she said.

While Keylor said he’s not opposed to the concept of competition, he’s also not ready to try to draw clients from other ESCs.

“We’re not going to go out and actively pursue other districts,” he said.

ESCs often collaborate on services one provides and another does not and support each other in different ways, Keylor said.

Dunn said reducing funding to ESCs hampers sharing of services that’s already happening.

“They are the shining examples of shared services that were touted just recently by the administration in Columbus,” he said. “It is rather ironic that they would be cutting support to those very agents that are helping us keep costs down by providing those shared services.”

Atkinson said the ESC can provide speech or physical therapy services to multiple districts that don’t have enough of a need to hire such therapists themselves. Should one or two districts opt out, the cost would rise for the others.

Ohio Rep. Andy Thompson, R-Marietta, said the budget process is just getting under way and he’s gathering information from school officials about the ESCs and other aspects of Kasich’s school funding proposals.

“This is based on what has been proposed, not what has been legislated,” he said.

Thompson said he frequently hears complaints about funding mandates from the state and from that perspective, the new ESC proposal shows some promise.

“In a sense, I like the idea that the school districts can (determine) which services to purchase rather than being mandated to remit a certain amount,” he said.

However, Thompson said he believes some middle ground can be reached and much more work needs to be done to determine not only what Kasich intended with his funding model but what the actual effects will be.

State Rep. Debbie Phillips, D-Albany, said she thinks districts in most cases would appreciate more leeway on how they spend money.

“But I think they recognize that there’s a real bang for their buck here” with the services ESCs provide, she said.