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Forethought prepared schools for state cuts

Reserves provide buffer against cuts, late payments

Staff writer

Despite dramatic cuts in state aid, school districts in Marion County will be able to weather the 2009-10 school year, according to superintendents. They credited school boards for taking action to prevent a funding crisis.

However, unless the state legislature reverses course on school funding, local school boards may have to make difficult choices in coming years.

USD 397

An increase in enrollment helped Centre USD 397 offset some state funding cuts, Superintendent Jerri Kemble said. The district has 18 new students in the 2009-10 school year.

State payments have been increasingly late each month, she said. If that trend continues, the district may have to borrow from its reserves to pay faculty and staff salaries. Then, when state funding arrives, the district would refill its reserves, Kemble said.

USD 397 has approximately one month’s payroll in contingency reserves. She said a larger reserve would be preferable, but the district is in a better position than some.

“We feel like we can make the payroll,” Kemble said.

USD 398

Peabody-Burns USD 398 has made spending cuts in recent years to cope with declining enrollment and in expectation of state funding cuts, Superintendent Rex Watson said.

Ending block scheduling reduced expenses, he said. The district has eliminated some staff positions through attrition. Financial reserves also have increased in recent years.

Some lawmakers and lobbyists have pointed out that school districts carry large cash balances from one school year to the next, saying that is evidence the state can safely cut funding, Watson said.

Districts’ fiscal years end June 30, but state funding doesn’t arrive until October. That is why it is so important for districts to have cash carry-over from one year to the next, he said.

Districts don’t have the luxury of spending that money at the end of the fiscal year because there will be several months’ bills to pay before any more funding arrives, Watson said.

Peabody-Burns was aided by a smaller-than-expected decrease in enrollment for 2009-10. Enrollment is probably up from 2008-09 now, because about 12 new students have enrolled since the official count on Sept. 20, Watson said.

He said the economic downturn may be responsible for some of the enrollment increase. People are moving away from cities’ high cost of living, he said.

Watson said he doesn’t expect USD 398 to need to dip into reserves this year.

USD 408

Amid state funding cuts, Marion/Florence USD 408 enrollment continues to decline, Superintendent Lee Leiker said.

The board of education has made cuts to keep up with enrollment, he said. The district has cut a bus route, reduced staff through retirement, and delayed vehicle replacement.

The board has done its best to keep cuts away from classrooms and education, but the board will have to answer difficult questions if budgets continue to decrease.

“Can we continue to offer all the programs we do?” he said.

If state cuts and enrollment decline continue, USD 408 may have to reduce the number of sections offered for some classes.

“We’re going to have to make significant cuts next year,” Leiker said.

The alternative is increasing taxes. USD 408 has some room to increase its local option budget, he said.

USD 410

Hillsboro USD 410 is an efficient district, because it doesn’t unnecessarily duplicate facilities or positions, Superintendent Steve Noble said.

He cited shared music programs between the high school and middle school as an example of that efficiency. By sharing facilities and staff among schools, the district cuts costs.

The board of education has eliminated roughly 11 positions during the last decade through attrition, Noble said.

The district will reduce its reserves about $51,000 to cope with larger-than-expected state cuts and an enrollment decrease, he said at a Dec. 14 board of education meeting.

Business manager Jerry Hinerman said some patrons have asked why the district doesn’t borrow to get through budget difficulties. Districts can’t borrow the same way a person can, he said; state law restricts how school districts can borrow.

A district can lease-purchase an item or bond for specific improvements. Neither method can be used for operating expenses, Hinerman said.

The district is increasingly having to use capital outlay funds for costs that could also be considered operational expenses, such as computer replacement, Noble said.

The board of education has authorized the maximum capital outlay levy — eight mills — in recent years. The district also has the maximum local option budget allowed by the state: 30 percent of the general fund.

“Our local taxpayers have stepped up to the plate to fund education,” Noble said.

But that means any more state funding cuts will require equal spending cuts. Noble predicted electives — including upper-level and college classes — will be the first area to suffer cuts. Those classes are vital to readying students for the next step of their education, he said.

USD 411

State funding cuts reduced Goessel USD 411’s budget authority by $225,000, Superintendent John Fast said.

The district shortened the school year by 10 days but lengthened school days by 12 minutes. That change saved the district expenses for bus routes and meal service, totaling about $12,000.

The district also froze all employee salaries, sharply curtailed professional development, postponed vehicle replacement, postponed reading curriculum adoption, made several positions part-time, and cut back spending on grounds, he said.

“I really have to commend our staff,” Fast said.

Staff members have attempted to cut spending, even voluntarily, he said.

An enrollment increase of 12 students was a “huge blessing,” Fast said. The increase will benefit the district for two additional years, even if enrollment falls in 2010-11. That is because Kansas allows districts to use the highest of either the current school year, the previous year, or a rolling three-year average to calculate enrollment.

USD 411 has been able to meet payroll without borrowing from reserves so far. The district would have to dip into the reserves to make payroll if state funding was more than a month late, Fast said.

The district has enough in reserve that other schools would have a crisis before USD 411, he said.

USD 411 has room to increase its local option budget if it must, but the board of education wants to avoid raising taxes if at all possible.

Last modified Dec. 31, 2009

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