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VIEWPOINT: District balances its educational opportunities with budget constraints

District 833 Superintendent Keith Jacobus writes: "The unfortunate aspect of school funding and budget issues is it often creates an adversarial situation between our most important partners, our parents and students."

I started my column in January with this statement: We have a lot to be proud of in the South Washington County School district. After a difficult month of conversations around the topic of budget reductions, I have been reminded of another reason for that pride: our community.  

Throughout our budget meetings and in reading the written feedback on the proposed budget reductions, I was impressed with the tone of the comments and the in-depth rational given in support of the suggestions and opinions people shared. Although there was frustration and disagreements with our situation and proposals, the discourse was thoughtful and productive in helping us work toward a solution. 

The unfortunate aspect of school funding and budget issues is it often creates an adversarial situation between our most important partners, our parents and students.  

Our community demonstrated a problem-solving mind-set that eliminated the adversarial aspects of the budget conversations. Although we have a great deal of work to do and difficult times ahead, we are in a better place due to the hard work and willingness that our community has offered.  

We received more than 700 written comments and had about 400 people attend our budget meetings. The feedback was comprehensive and highlighted the values, passion and importance our community places on the services we offer our students. We were told many personal stories of moving to our area because of the school district. We heard the pride people have in the schools their kids attend. We learned how willing our community is to help us maintain and enhance the educational opportunities we provide to our students fully understanding that they are our future.  

It is important to know that we listened and heard you.

As a result of the feedback and direction the School Board gave us, we presented a modified budget reduction plan to our Board on Feb. 19. Although we still will need to make difficult budget reductions, we have modified the plan to delay a number of the reductions for one year. The reason we are able to delay the reductions is because of the decision the Board made to temporarily drop under our 5 percent fund balance policy and utilize those funds to limit the scope of the reductions. The delay helps to preserve programming while giving our community a chance to voice its support for potentially maintaining these programs through a levy election in the fall.

I encourage you to look at the 2015-16 Budget Planning Hot Topic on our website (sowashco.k12.mn.us) for the full explanation and how we plan to move forward with the adjustments. Included is a set of questions and answers that will help you understand more about the specific reductions and other common topics that were included through the recent conversations.

Making budget reduction decisions is the most difficult issue to work through as a superintendent because it involves people. All of our reductions involve eliminating great people from our district. The expertise and passion they bring to their positions and what their loss means to our students cannot be under estimated. We will continue to implement the budget process with heavy hearts.  

We’ve shared throughout the process the financial struggles of a district our size due to the funding restraints experienced from the state over the last decade. We have worked to explain the various cost increases we incur each year while still working to provide the best education for our students. In the end, the $8 million dollars of needed reductions is just 4 percent of our budget. 

It is amazing that just 4 percent of our budget can have such an impact on what we do. 

Throughout the process I was approached a number of times by parents who believe that we need to ask our community for what we need so we can avoid the continued rollercoaster effect of budget cuts. We’ve shared how far below the allowable referendum cap we are in comparison to the state and other school districts. The School Board will be working through the referendum issue in the near future.

We look forward to a continued partnership with our community as conversations continue and our work toward providing the best education possible for our students is maintained.

Keith Jacobus is the superintendent of the South Washington School District.

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