Doing “more with less” demands partners, K-12 sector is finding them

Hugh Quill

Fewer state tax dollars for Ohio’s local governments and schools have public administrators talking, in the light of day no less, about mergers and shared services – topics long taboo in the Buckeye State’s public sector. Most public officials fear the former and suspect that the latter is just a catchy phrase that stands for comingling their funds for the benefit of others.

Elected officials can be forgiven for their reluctance to discuss mergers and service consolidations. They didn’t create this maze of public service delivery; and until stagnant population growth, aging Babyboomers, and weakening soft economy caught up with Ohio, the status quo seemed sustainable. Citizens also have misgivings about consolidation and sharing. They view merging their local governments as a potential loss of identity and fear their sense of community will be sacrificed in the process. In Ohio, all politics really are local, and local control has been a sacred cow.

The reality is that public institutions have long succeeded in gaining taxpayers’ approval to dig deeper in their wallets because citizens fear that doing otherwise will result in bad schools, crumbling infrastructure, community decay, and lower property values. Times have changed. The economy tanked in 2008 and is only slowly recovering, state government is cutting back on local funding, property values have fallen, and it is increasingly difficult to pass school levies and other local tax increases even in the high-wealth suburbs. Local officials – and citizens – are left contemplating significant service reductions, higher local taxes and fees, and/or, collaborative efficiencies with neighboring jurisdictions.

It is hard to argue that from a governing perspective that Ohio is not overbuilt. Nearly 4,000 separate political entities create a lot of mouths to feed – from officials and employees to bricks, mortar, computer systems, and more. Clearly, no one in the 21st century would design this scattered public service delivery system from scratch, but the political nature of the organizations involved makes finding solutions hard, and implementing them even harder.

Ohio’s over-capacity in governmental agencies is fundamentally structural, and local governments and schools have an important opportunity to cooperate on matters like regional health benefit pools, shared talent pools, information technology consolidation, and procurement innovations to protect vital services and programs. Progress begins with leadership that recognizes public funding limitations, embraces best practices and technology and is committed to change. Unwinding an overbuild public sector that has much embedded political support will be tedious work but necessary as we battle to regain public confidence.

In what may come as a surprise to many, K-12 public education systems in Ohio are ahead of the pack in many ways. There are two high-performing shared services models up and running that provide critical support for member districts: Educational Service Centers (ESCs) and Information Technology Centers (ITCs). These organizations represent viable platforms and valuable resources in constructing more efficient and regional approaches to common challenges that schools and local governments face. Currently these fee-for-service entities provide valuable curriculum support services, network connectivity, and other assistance to local school districts.

Developing partnerships between schools and local government agencies that pay tangible dividends to taxpayers should be among the highest priorities for both local and state political leaders and policy makers. In the greater Columbus area, for example, the Central Ohio Regional Shared Services Steering Committee, lead by the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission and the ESC of Central Ohio, provides an important forum for local governments to optimize resources, improve services, leverage economies of scale, and reduce costs through collaborative government agreements and shared services.

Public managers and elected officials from over 40 communities, school systems, nonprofits, and higher education gather regularly to evaluate how to increase their buying power and develop regional service delivery solutions while protecting vital services and curriculum.

Notable shared services initiatives by these entities include:

  • Economic development and shared fleet maintenance (City of Columbus and contiguous local governments),
  • IT consolidation planning (Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission and the ESC of Central Ohio),
  • IT consolidation planning (Union County, City of Marysville, and Marysville City Schools), and
  • Health benefits cooperative (managed by the County Commissioners Association of Ohio for 23 Ohio counties).

Rebuilding trust with stakeholders and voters by maximizing tax dollars already approved, and in the system, is critical short term work. Turning talk into projects that pay with dividends of efficiency and trust among communities facing similar challenges will strengthen this state’s ability to weather the current fiscal storm and bolster public trust in the stewardship of tax dollars.

Hugh Quill is founder and CEO of Public Performance Partners. He is a former director of the Ohio Department of Administrative Services and former Montgomery County Treasurer.

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