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Funding increase raises new District 833 budget questions

South Washington County Schools will see additional state funding for the first time in five years, but there is no consensus among District 833 School Board members on whether to pull back any of the $2 million proposed cuts for next year, School Board Chairman Ron Kath said following a budget discussion last week.

The district faced a $6 million deficit for 2013-14 when it began planning the budget earlier this year. That assumed no funding increase.

The board settled on $2 million in cuts for next school year, including increasing class sizes by an average of nearly one student, increasing walking distances for secondary students by one-half mile and cutting expenses and two positions in operations. That brought the projected deficit to $4 million and would have been covered by the district's fund balance. Using that amount of reserves, however, would have left a fund balance of 5.8 percent of the operating budget -- on the low end of the district's goal of maintaining 5 to 9 percent of the budget in reserves.

Aaron Bushberger, district finance director, explained this year's legislative changes at last week's board meeting, which will cut the $4 million deficit by half and boost fund balance to 6.6 percent, or $11 million, at the end of June 2014.

The school district's operating budget is roughly $172 million, with state funding comprising 80 percent of the revenue.

Board member Jim Gelbmann asked that the board use some of the state aid increase to cancel the plan to increase class sizes for a $1.5 million savings. The community has always valued small class sizes, he said.

District management has a plan that could be done and has asked for flexibility, said board member Laurie Johnson. "We ought to stick to it," she said.

"It's 22 teachers," Gelbmann said.

Kath said the district is still deficit spending even with the state aid increase. Taking back planned spending cuts only makes it worse in coming years, he said.

Board member Katy McElwee-Stevens said she would rather revisit going back to a 1.5-mile walking distance for secondary schools. But she also said she is concerned about deficit spending.

"I'm comfortable with the staffing," she said.

Dave Bernhardson, assistant superintendent for elementary education, said a projection of next year's class sizes is an actual average increase of 0.7, not one student.

With state assistance to keep class sizes low in grades K-3, class sizes will range from 21 to 22.6 students and rise to 27 in grades 4 and 5.

Board member Marsha Adou said she didn't hear parents complaining about class sizes but has heard concerns about the walking distances. On the other hand, adding all-day kindergarten in the fall of 2014 at no charge would increase the transportation budget, Adou said.

There are several transportation areas that need attention from a safety standpoint, said Mike Vogel, assistant to the superintendent for facilities. One situation, at 75th Street and Jamaica Avenue in Cottage Grove, could be remedied with crossing guards.

If the district lowers the 55 mph standard for hazardous situations to 45 mph, it will wipe out $170,000 in projected savings, he said, and would potentially include busing students inside the one-mile limit for elementary students.

The board will decide the final 2013-14 budget at the June 20 meeting.

Judy Spooner
Judy Spooner is the longest-serving staff writer at the South Washington County Bulletin. Spooner, who covers education and features in addition to writing a weekly column, has been with the newspaper for over 30 years.
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