School says extra funds are no quick fix for budget woes

Published 12:00 am Friday, May 17, 2002

An extra $300,000 next year from the state to help with unexpected deficits resulting from the Farmland fire and plant closure will help the Albert Lea School District, but not as much as some may hope.

The school board hasn’t taken up the issue of how to spend the money yet, because getting legislative approval wasn’t considered a certainty.

At least one school board member, Tom Eaton, still isn’t letting himself think about the extra funds until the legislation is signed by the governor.

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he first step will probably be to treat those additional funds as reserves &045; the same thing that was done with the $200,000 teachers allowed the district to transfer from staff development into the general fund.

Then the board will need to review its current financial situation.

&uot;The first thing we have to do is look at the general fund budget to see where we’re coming up short,&uot; said Carol Haun, District 241 board member.

One reason for that is because general fund revenue increases from the state continue to lag behind expenses. The additional money will probably be needed to fill the larger holes in next year’s budget instead of being available for bringing back programs that had been cut last year, said David Prescott, district superintendent.

&uot;Revenue for next year is up only about two percent, but expenditures are up between 3-1/2 and 4 percent,&uot; Prescott said. Contributing to the increased expenditures are mounting costs for health-care benefits &045; increased costs which are shared by the district and its employees.

What happens to the extra funding depends on what the school board sets as a priority, Prescott said.

Reducing class sizes through rehiring a couple of teachers may be one practical effect, as well as getting students safely to and from school, said Bill Leland, board member.

&uot;I’m primarily concerned about classroom sizes and dealing with the hazard zones for kids walking to school,&uot; Leland said.

The district will change its busing policy, excluding students at all grades who live within two miles of their school. Before, the distance was one mile for elementary school and 1.5 miles for middle school. Re-extending bus service to students who live within the two-mile exclusion zone but who face unsafe situations when walking to school would be a good idea, he said.

&uot;I think just about anything would on the table at first,&uot; said Haun. But they will need to see where additional funds would have the greatest benefit for students, she added.

&uot;It’s a real balancing act. It isn’t as simple as saying ‘Let’s just put that back,&uot; Haun said.

&uot;My thought is that I would like to take a look at reducing class sizes in elementary grades, and then bring back programs as options for students,&uot; said Ken Petersen, board chairman.

&uot;I’m sure there’s plenty of ways to spend the money, but it’s a matter of how much and where,&uot; agreed Eaton.

One thing it won’t change is the need for asking district voters for an excess levy. According to board members, the district is already facing an estimated budget shortfall of between $750,000 and $1.1 million for the 2003-2004 school year. The extra money will make some of those cuts less painful, but without an excess levy there will be cuts to program and staff.

&uot;I don’t want people to think that if we bring a program back with this money, it will be back permanently,&uot; said Eaton. If state aid continues to increase less than expenses, programs may be subject to cutbacks in the future.

According to Haun, the Farmland money is a short-term solution to problems caused by Farmland shutting down. The only long-term solution that allows the district to keep programs in place will come with a levy, she said.