‘Where did this deficit come from?’
That the big Scranton School District deficit became even bigger during 2016 is, as district board member Cy Douaihy put it, “disturbing but not surprising.” Actually, what is so disturbing is that the deficit increase was wholly predictable because the board, which has a state constitutional mandate to adopt a balanced budget, deliberately passed a badly underfunded budget in 2016 for the fourth consecutive year.
The 2016 audit says the Scranton district finished the year with a $25.3 million deficit. But bond documents prepared for the district early this year show the deficit now to be $33.6 million and growing, with a potential to reach $47 million by the end of December — by which time the board is supposed to have a new balanced budget.
Yet board President Bob Sheridan said “we have been working very hard and doing a lot of things to bring that deficit down.”
Oh? Things such as extending an unbid busing contract after the state auditor general blasted the board for awarding it. And, as the budget grew, pushing existing debt repayments further into the future to “balance” the 2017 budget.
The state Department of Education already has placed the district under financial watch status, which could be a precursor to direct state control of the district.
Meanwhile, several directors have pointed their fingers back at the state. They have a point, to a point. The district appears to be underfunded relative to its highly diverse and low-income demographics, yet it’s remarkable that the board seemed not to have noticed that until this year.
Voters have imposed accountability upon Sheridan by dismissing him. But don’t worry, taxpayers. Sheridan says that “even when I’m gone, I’ll still be concerned.”
It’s time for Sheridan and his colleagues to take responsibility for the burgeoning deficits, adopt a 2018 budget that includes the hard decisions necessary to stop the deficit meter from running wild, or get out of the way and defer to state management.