Education Department finds $28 million to plug shortfall

By JOHN McCARTHY, Associated Press Writer

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - The Ohio Department of Education is shifting money around to help plug a $108 million shortfall in its current budget.

The state Controlling Board on Monday approved a plan that redirects $28 million intended for gifted students, computers and other programs toward basic aid for students.

The move was made after schools budget director Susan Tavakolian explained how the shortfall occurred. She told the board, consisting of six lawmakers and a representative of Gov. Bob Taft, that the state estimate of school attendance was short by about 9,000 students out of 1.8 million.

That meant the state's public schools would finish $108 million in the red at the end of this school year. The Legislature took $80 million from an expected surplus for the budget year ending June 30 and put it toward education.

Taft's office also restored about $12.5 million in budget cuts to the department he ordered in the current budget year. That money, originally intended for a computer wiring program, computer software, special reading and math and other programs, will go toward basic aid.

That left the education department to come up with the rest.

Besides redirecting money to basic aid, the department also saved money by posting district report cards on the Internet rather than mailing them, Tavakolian said.

The department and Office of Budget and Management said the surge in students could have resulted from a drop in students attending private schools. Enrollment at those schools has decreased from 239,000 two years ago, to 232,000 last year and 222,000 this year. The assumption is the weak economy forced parents to send children to public schools. A shift of some home-schooled students into online charter schools may also play a role, educators say.

"I do not see any geographic pattern that stands out. It seems to be statewide," Tavakolian said.

The department was able to absorb the new cuts by shifting the money out of programs where surpluses are expected and where some programs have ended but money is left over, department spokesman J.C. Benton said. Other programs faced actual cuts, he said.

"Because we'd already gone through our budget with a fine-tooth comb finding programs in (budget year) '04 to reduce with cuts, when this came around much of our work was done," Benton said.

(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)