Area school boards take teacher cuts off the table despite slow economy
by Dennis Sharkey
Although the economic situation hasn’t improved much locally, area school boards are less willing to make drastic cuts this time around.
Jefferson County North USD 339 is one of the 10 poorest districts in the state but is in a position to absorb cuts from the state this year. Off the table is teacher and staff cuts. Instead carry-over and contingency funds will be used to make up the shortfalls.
“I think the board’s intention is to try to hold and absorb the cuts with carry-over money that we’ve built up,” Jefferson County North USD 339 Superintedent Dr. Tim Marshall said. “That won’t last forever but it will give the economy another year and not cut into staff and programs any deeper.”
Marshall said the district has about $205,000 in reserves and expects more than half to be used in next year’s budget.
JCN had cut more than $500,000 from their general fund budget the last two and a half years.
“If funding stays flat or if there are decreases again there will probably have to be cuts in a year,” he said.
Oskaloosa USD 341 board members are also taking teacher reductions off the table and in place are willing to dip into contingency funds. However, staff reductions could be a possibility.
Superintendent Jon Pfau said his district will need to find about $150,000 in cuts for next year’s budget. However, conservative spending by staff may leave the district with as much as $100,000 of carry-over from this year’s budget.
“We feel like we’re able to work through this year without having to go that direction,” Pfau said. “We’ll evaluate next year when it comes.”
Pfau said moves have already been made to reduce the district’s technology budget and athletic budgets for next year. The athletic budget will realize savings by not purchasing new uniforms.
The buildings’ budget has also been reduced but Pfau said the reason why there will be carry-over this year is because principals have put greater scrutiny on requests.
“They’ve done a good job the last couple of years of underspending,” Pfau said. “However, there will be some prioritization when requests come up.”
McLouth USD 342 board members are being more coy about staffing cuts and have not indicated if staffing reductions are on or off the table. Superintendent Jean Rush said avoiding staff cuts could be difficult when trying to find $214,000 in next year’s budget to cut.
“To cut $200,000 without cutting salaries will be a challenge,” Rush said.
Although Rush didn’t rule out staffing cuts, her expectations are that cuts to staffing won’t happen.
“At this time I’m not expecting any personnel changes,” Rush said. “The board has a healthy contingency reserve fund.”
Rush said the board also built in cuts to this year’s fiscal budget. The governor has already announced a $75 per pupil cut to base state aid for this year. That amounted to about $63,000 for the district. The board budgeted $70,000 in cuts.
Rush said budgeting this year will also be challenging because of unknown factors in the economy. Each year the board typically budgets a three percent increase in operating costs. However, things such as fuel costs and insurance premiums leave more questions than answers.
Rush said board members have not discussed raising property taxes or increasing fees.
A lot of criticism has been directed at school districts this year because of the contingency reserve funds that districts are holding onto. Marshall said the funds are there for a reason.
“I think we had a purpose for saving that money and the purpose is now,” he said. “Hopefully we’ve gone as deep into the well as we’re going to.”
Marshall said those who are criticizing districts for having a back up plan need to direct their critiques toward themselves.
“I feel like the state has used plan A, B, C and D and there’s no contingency plan left,” he said. “I think they need to stand back and take a good look at what I think was good planning and I really can’t accuse the state of doing that.”
If districts do not spend down contingency funds this year they will be forced to next year if the legislature doesn’t act.
In 2008 the legislature passed a bill that increased the amount districts could retain in a contingency fund from six percent to 10 percent. That law sunsets next year.
In other actions:
USD 342 moved forward last week in hiring Mark Dodge to replace Butch Batman as elementary principal. Rush said new Superintendent Steve Spichal interviewed and participated in the hiring process. Spichal will take over July 1.
USD 341 will meet next week and possibly move on a hire for their open elementary school principal position. Interviews are currently taking place.
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