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VIEWPOINT: Financing our schools takes collaboration

Organizations are inherently complex. The nature of complexity makes it hard to predict with certainty the outcome of an event because of the many elements that interact with the change that may vary the outcome. 

The complexities of moving a school system forward exceed the capabilities of individual school leaders. 

Helping all kids succeed demands a collaborative effort between educators, parents and community members to ensure we have the collective wisdom to address the varied and unique needs of more than 17,700 students.

Financing a school system is also a collaborative effort. We need the state to appropriately fund the schools. We need decision makers to spend the funds wisely and in ways that support our strategic plan and leverage programs to help every student succeed. We need the support of our community to provide added funds needed to address our building needs and supplement funding the state cannot provide. Our state allows districts to ask for additional funding from our local taxpayers. 

The state legislators realized the funds they could provide to schools were not enough to address the ongoing educational needs of our students.

In my last article I provided you with a brief summary of why we will be asking our community for support through a levy election in November. The main issue facing us is that during the last 10 years, we have been providing a high-quality education to our students, while the state has been unable to fund us at the level of yearly inflation rates. 

So as the cost of maintaining the same programs increased with inflation, the state funding consistently lagged behind. 

In our commitment to our students we have spent down our reserves as far as we could before making budget reductions and looking to a levy election. We also have building needs that warrant a bond election for the additional space needs due to the continued increase in new housing developments.

In order to prepare for the referendum, we had a survey conducted to determine the community perspectives on the district and the potential referendum questions. The data from our community validated our efforts and indicated we are doing a good job both in the education we provide and in the financial management of the district. The survey of our community, conducted by the Morris-Leatherman Co., included high ratings of satisfaction in the key areas of academic quality, academic programs and high-quality teachers. Residents perceive their local school district as a good value for their investment (87 percent), and also they trust the district to do the right thing (83 percent). Our efforts at transparency resonated with a 77 percent agreement rating in satisfaction with our decision-making processes.

Among areas of concern in the survey was the lack of awareness of our current financial issues. 

For the past several years, we have consistently worked to adjust the budget to remain within the School Board-approved fund balance policy while still maintaining the high-quality programs for kids. We’ve cut $4.7 million from the budget for the 2015-16 school year, with an additional $3.4 million of reductions held back for the 2016-17 school year if a referendum is unsuccessful.

The legislature provided school districts with a 2 percent increase each of the next two years. The additional amount is not enough to make up for the lack of funding in the past. 

The last time the legislators provided a similar increase was in 2007-08. Comments made at our budget adjustment feedback meetings last winter included requests to have us ask for the full dollar amount needed in future elections, not the short-term fix. 

The dollar amount we need to overcome the lack of adequate funding is greater than what we believe is workable for our community at this time. The School Board is working to finalize decisions regarding the ballot questions, but at this time, the Board does not want to overburden taxpayers.

We will continue to work toward efficiencies where possible, in order to provide greater fiscal responsibility to our public.

I encourage you to become an informed voter and to vote on Nov. 3. It will be a critical decision for the well being of our educational system.

Keith Jacobus is the superintendent of South Washington County Schools.