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Proposed cuts would put schools in a bind

Staff writer

Gov. Sam Brownback proposed a budget for 2012 that would reduce per-pupil aid to public schools by $232, from $4,012 to $3,780 per student.

School administrators and board of education members in Marion County have concerns about how that cut would affect their schools.

“It’s hypocritical what he (Brownback) did,” Hillsboro USD 410 Board of Education President Eddie Weber said. “He promised not to take money out of classrooms, but that’s what he’s doing.”

Weber said the board hasn’t addressed what might be cut if Brownback’s proposal becomes reality. School boards haven’t met since the governor made his proposal; the next regularly scheduled meetings are Feb. 14.

Weber said a $232 per-student cut would eliminate approximately $400,000 of USD 410’s roughly $4 million operating budget.

“You plan for the worst and hope for the best,” Weber said.

Centre USD 397 is in a better position than many districts to weather the storm, Board of Education President Brent Methvin said. He said the board anticipated substantial cuts and tried to reduce expenses.

“For our school, we did a lot of things last year,” Methvin said.

A major change the district made in anticipation of funding reduction was temporarily closing Centre Elementary School in Lost Springs and moving all students to a single campus.

Methvin gave credit to Superintendent Jerri Kemble and board clerk Peggy Falen for preparing for the worst.

The governor isn’t proposing to wait until fiscal year 2012 to make the entire cut, Peabody-Burns USD 398 Superintendent Rex Watson said. The first $75 per student cut would be in the current school year, leaving schools with less money than they budgeted. For USD 398, a $75-per-student cut is about $45,292, he said.

Watson said he saw four methods to cope with reduced school funding:

  • Reduce expenditures. He said he didn’t think there is enough that can be reasonably cut to cope with the entire funding shortfall, though.
  • Raise local taxes. USD 398 is about 1 mill below its maximum property tax levy for operations. The district also doesn’t levy any of the 8 mills allowable for capital improvement, but those taxes are limited in what they can be spent on. Again, Watson said raising taxes is unlikely to fill the entire gap in state aid.
  • Spend cash reserves. The board of education has made an effort to increase cash reserves in recent years, expecting funding might be cut. Watson said the district has enough reserves to make it through the 2011-12 school year, but there are no assurances funding will return to current levels or even remain level after that year.
  • Or a combination of all three. He said that was the most likely and viable option for the district.

Watson said he is reluctant to cut any staff if it can be avoided.

“Any cut that we make in terms of staff will be detrimental to kids,” he said.

Some people recommend dropping programs that aren’t mandated by state law, such as sports, arts, and electives. And that can be done, but he said the district created all of those programs for a reason.

“If it wasn’t good for kids, we never would have done it in the first place,” he said.

Marion/Florence USD 408 Superintendent Lee Leiker said the proposed midyear cut would put schools in a bind because most of the budget is already committed.

Combining the two cuts, Leiker expects the district to lose about $250,000 in state funding. At the same time, decreasing enrollment could reduce funds by another $100,000. In tough financial times, the staff’s will to make things work is an important asset, he said.

“I’m confident they will find ways to continue to do a great job of educating students even with decreased resources,” Leiker said.

The biggest expenses for most school districts are salaries, health insurance, and utilities, and salaries are the item school boards have the most direct control over, Leiker said. He expects the district to continue searching for ways to improve staff efficiency.

Leiker said he thinks districts in the area could find savings by sharing resources. There are many events that people from all districts in the county attend, and they could do a better job sharing transportation to those events. Sharing some staff — including teachers — could be another potential savings.

“I think there are some things we can do as a county to help each other,” Leiker said.

He doesn’t think any districts in the county are in a position where they have to consider consolidation, but he thinks conversations about school consolidation may begin in the spring elsewhere in Kansas.

Goessel USD 411 Superintendent John Fast said it is important to remember that Brownback’s proposal is just that right now — a proposal. It hasn’t been enacted.

Fast attended a meeting Thursday that included Kansas Deputy School Finance Commissioner Dale Dennis. Schools should prepare for additional cuts for 2012-13, cuts that could reduce school funding to 1992 levels, Fast was told.

“That’s a very real possibility,” he said.

USD 411 has made several changes to cope with previous school funding reductions. Those changes include reducing bus routes, reducing teachers’ supply budgets, reducing how many textbooks and workbooks are purchased, and shortening the school year, Fast said.

For all the problems reductions in per-pupil funding create for schools, Fast said it is the most equitable way of reducing school funding. It has the same effects on small and large school districts, he said, and he prefers that over changing the school funding formula.

USD 408 Board of Education President Chris Sprowls said he understands why Brownback is proposing the cuts.

“Cuts are inevitable,” he said. “There’s no way the state can balance the budget without cuts.”

He said the board will have to look at any and every possible way to handle reduced funding.

“Our schools will definitely look different next year,” Sprowls said.

But there is no way to know yet how different they will be.

“We’re not the ones who created the problem,” Sprowls said. “But now we have to help solve it.”

Last modified Jan. 27, 2011

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