COLUMBIA — Today, two new School Board members will join five incumbents to figure out how to make ends meet in the 2008-09 school year.
Voters rejected a 54-cent tax levy increase April 8. As a result, current board President Karla DeSpain said at least $5 million in cuts in the district’s annual budget, which will be approved by June 30, is inevitable. Without the additional $10 million in revenue that the tax levy would have brought in, the board might have to reduce the number of employees, including instructional specialists, and increase class sizes throughout the district.
The board has revised the administrator-prepared list of proposed cuts many times. Over the next few months, they will discuss which of the possible cuts are most necessary and which are least intrusive in the classroom.
Mary Laffey, assistant superintendent for human resources, said the additional $5 million in budget cuts are necessary because she does not want the board to dip into district savings. The district tries to keep 16 percent of annual expenses in reserves in case of fiscal emergencies and to maintain a high bond rating.
“If the new board wants to dip below the 16 percent reserve, then the board will also see the ramifications of that over what it will potentially do the following year and the following year,” she said. “What we are making a commitment to is building a budget that can maintain the appropriate reserve level so that we don’t have to borrow, so that we don’t become a financially distressed district in the future.”
Newly-elected board member Ines Segert said she thinks the cuts might not even be necessary. After examining the projected budget for this year alongside past budget trends, she said the administration is speculating beyond what is actually needed. She estimates that by only reducing the 2008-09 budget by $5 million, already approved by the school board, the reserves will settle at approximately 16 percent by the end of 2009.
Segert also thinks that when administrators pressured the board to make decisions quickly in the past, the board made errors that had to be corrected later. She referenced the selection of the Vemer property for the new high school without public input, which the board later changed after negative public comment.
“In retrospect, they had plenty of time to make a decision,” she said. “That should be the model.”
Segert said the board can easily go many months without deciding whether it needs additional cuts.
“I think there’s a lot to be said for taking the time to get all the information and make a really good decision,” she said.
Board member Steve Calloway said he thinks there will be a budget deficit if additional cuts are not made.
“The option we have is to use the reserves to match expenses; however, that’s against one of our budget parameters,” he said. “The bottom line is I don’t see any way (going below 16 percent in the reserves) can happen.”
Calloway said the board must cut an additional $5 million from the budget if the administration is correctly predicting next year’s expenses and revenues. The district cites the deficit as a result of increasing enrollment, decreasing state funding, increases in employee base pay and the hiring of 70 new employees last year.
Calloway acknowledged that previously the district has predicted budget deficits that never happened.
“If you look at the years past where we said we were going to have a deficit and we didn’t, it’s kind of like crying wolf,” he said.
But he said the administration’s revenue and expense estimates for the upcoming school year should be accurate.
“We’ve been very direct with the administration,” he said.
While this would be a great year for the administration to be wrong, he said, the board stands to lose even more credibility if the cuts end up being unnecessary.
Tonight, the board will vote on:
• The sale of district-owned property appraised at $1.8 million. The Vemer property is not on the list.
• The parameters for teacher contracts, which Laffey will tell teachers Tuesday. Contracts could reflect a 187-day salary schedule, a result of the possible cutting of two work days from the schedule. Final contracts must be issued by May 15, but if the board does not vote on the salary schedule until later, a second contract can be issued. To read a copy of the letter teachers will receive, go to schoolhousetalk.blogspot.com.
• Roof replacements for 11 buildings totaling $1.18 million.
• Window replacements and asbestos removal totaling $220,000.
• The easement of Blue Ridge and Mill Creek elementary schools and the Strawn school property.
Other actions include:
• Admitting newly-elected Segert and Rosie Tippin to replace David Ballenger and Darin Preis.
• Electing a president and vice president. Historically, the positions are filled by the oldest members, who are Calloway, DeSpain and Michelle Gadbois.