BY DANA DiFILIPPO
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Cincinnati Public Schools officials say they have initiated many of the recommendations in a state audit released Thursday, but have criticized other suggestions as unrealistic if the district wants to continue achievement gains.
The performance audit, conducted by Ohio Auditor Jim Petro's office, recommends nearly $53 million in cuts CPS could make annually by correcting overspending problems, poor record-keeping and other inefficiencies. The cuts target teaching staff, transportation, technology and facilities.
"The recommendations confirmed many of my own impressions of the district, and they provide a good road map for further change," Superintendent Steven Adamowski said.
Recommended changes that CPS already has initiated include:
The audit projects a CPS deficit of up to $260.3 million within five years, because of expensive reforms the district has implemented and the need to renew two levies totaling $66 million in the next three years. Even with the renewals, administrators hope to put a new levy on the ballot next year to erase the deficit, district Treasurer Richard Gardner said.
- Conducting an inventory of district facilities and plotting their future use. A facilities master plan is due Oct. 26.
- Developing a long-range technology plan.
- Implementing the recommendations of the Buenger Commission, a 1991 Cincinnati Business Committee analysis of the city's school district. Administrators have adopted nearly two-thirds of business leaders' recommendations from the 1991 report.
Mr. Adamowski said the audit highlights the longstanding problem of public districts' reliance on property taxes.
"I've worked in (many) states, and one of the problems with finance that is unique to Ohio is that you have to keep renewing levies," said Mr. Adamowski, who has worked in New Jersey, Delaware, Connecticut, Maine, Missouri and Indiana. "All the time you spend on passing the levy takes energy out of an organization that would be better focused on student achievement."
The audit targeted the teaching staff as one area of potential cuts. The district is overstaffed, especially with librarians - media staff and instructional assistants, and teachers don't spend as much time teaching as their contract allows, the audit found.
Cincinnati Federation of Teachers (CFT) President Tom Mooney disputed the data auditors used.
"I'm all for blowing the whistle when the whistle needs to be blown, but on the issue of workload, they are way off," Mr. Mooney said.
A CFT analysis showed that teachers spend 240 to 275 minutes a day teaching, instead of 225 minutes or less, as the audit found. By contract, CPS teachers can teach up to 280 minutes daily.
But Auditor Jim Petro defended the report, saying auditors double- and triple-checked data supplied by the state with CPS employees and other sources.
Mr. Mooney also disputed the audit's claim of overstaffing among librarians, saying most act as reading specialists. Staffing typically is a school-level decision, he added.
The audit also noted that CPS relies on substitutes to fill in for teachers who are "released" from class for other duties, such as professional training and peer advising. Reducing that reliance could save the district millions, the audit found.
But few teachers are released from class, Mr. Mooney contended.
"The auditors evaluate some things they are not qualified to evaluate," he said. "They're quick to recommend cuts, but they don't examine the educational impact of that."
Mr. Petro said the performance audit isn't meant to grade academic programs. Rather, it targets fiscal efficiency.
Academic progress is measured in school district report cards Ohio lawmakers last year ordered the Ohio Department of Education to prepare annually for all of the state's 611 public districts. CPS's first report card rated it as in a state of academic emergency, passing four of 18 standards measuring student proficiency test scores, attendance and dropout rates.
Other recommendations in Thursday's performance audit include:
- Developing action plans and financial forecasts in case voters defeat needed levies.
- Renegotiating medical and severance benefits.
- Reducing the payout on the district's sick-leave policy could save $8.8 million.
- Competitively bidding transportation services and reconsidering the practice of transporting 20,800 more students than state law requires.
- Training some custodians to handle minor maintenance tasks. Maintenance orders are backlogged and often are performed on an emergency basis.