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  Comments (3) Total Wednesday Apr. 23, 2014
Already Strapped for Cash, Schools Worry About Future Budgets
Disappearing stimulus and enrollment play part in shortfalls
Students and teachers at Bigfork High School head to class after lunch. - File photo by Lido Vizzutti/Flathead Beacon
Three school districts in the Flathead Valley are staring down significant budget shortfalls for the 2010-2011 school year, and officials are worried about even grimmer forecasts looming for the following year.

The districts in Kalispell, Columbia Falls and Bigfork each explained different reasons for the deficits, but all came to the same conclusion that their perennially tight belts need to get even tighter if they want to balance their budgets.

With the largest financial hurdle, School District 5 faces an $800,000 deficit – about $216,000 in the high school district and $603,000 in the elementary schools. Increases in operational costs and a plateau in state support are largely to blame for the shortfall, according to SD5 Superintendent Darlene Schottle.

The district has more than 700 employees, Schottle said, and every year their wage and benefit costs go up. Resources from the state, based largely on enrollment numbers, have not mirrored these increases, adding a little more to the deficit each year, Schottle said.

The high school district is about $216,000 behind, Schottle said. The school board decided not to run a levy to cover this deficit, instead to cut costs.

These cuts could mean reductions in maintenance, curriculum and staffing costs. With hope, the staffing costs would come down by not filling positions left empty by retirements, Schottle said.

“What we’re trying not to do is have to lay anyone off,” Schottle said.

The elementary deficit of over $600,000 poses a harder challenge. Schottle said the school board has agreed to float voters a $250,000 levy in May and to consider reducing budgets by up to $310,000. It also may tap roughly $88,000 in transition funds.

The areas up for possible budget reductions include curriculum, staff and maintenance costs. Already, administrative and central office staff for both the elementary and high schools have turned down pay raises, Schottle said, saving about $37,000.

Schottle’s concerns, however, lie not in the current budget battle, but also in the near future.

“I think the key is it’s probably going to be worse next year,” Schottle said.

The district used federal stimulus money to backfill its budget, Schottle said, and those monies will not be available next year. Similarly, the 2009 Legislature decided to partially fund schools statewide with stimulus money, which makes Schottle worry they will start funding schools in 2011 at 2009 levels.

In Bigfork, School District 38 has similar concerns about stimulus funding. At this point, the district is staring down one of its biggest shortfalls, totaling more than $296,000.

Eda Taylor, the district’s business manager, said the elementary school actually received a bit of a boost in state funding because of a 13-student increase, but it was quickly eaten up by costs that need to be added back into the budget.

These costs include a staff member returning from a leave of absence and almost $100,000 of stimulus money that will not exist for the 2010-2011 budget. The total elementary school deficit is over $134,600.

The high school district faces a nearly $161,900 shortfall. Losing 24 students didn’t help budget matters, Taylor said, nor does a $28,000 loss of stimulus money.

The board hasn’t decided how to handle the deficit yet, Taylor said, but plans on having a series of meetings in April.

In Columbia Falls’ School District 6, budgetary shortfalls have already evoked an emotional response from the community after the district considered closing Canyon Elementary School to help with the district’s $540,000 deficit.

SD6 Superintendent Mike Nicosia said Canyon Elementary will stay open in 2010-2011, but its reprieve may be short lived. Declining enrollment has plagued the district for years, which means a decline in state revenue.

Canyon Elementary had 214 students in 1996. This year, there are only 93. Closing the school and redistributing the students could save the district $900,000, Nicosia said at a public meeting in January, but the idea faced heavy criticism from the public.

To keep the school open, Nicosia said staff has been reduced to the minimum accreditation standards and combination classes were created out of second and third grade, as well as third and fourth grade.

The high school district will see a roughly $250,000 shortfall, Nicosia said, which is also largely due to declining enrollment. This year’s ninth-grade class is one of the smallest he has seen, Nicosia said, and next year’s class looks to be even smaller.

Since the deficit is based in enrollment numbers, there is little the district can do to make ends meet, Nicosia said.

“There isn’t much that we can really do,” Nicosia said. “The board has stated that absent something extraordinary happening funding-wise that (Canyon Elementary) will close the following year.”

Nicosia said that something would have to come from the Legislature, giving the district and the Canyon community an opportunity to lobby their representation.
On 03-23-10, Nicholesgs commented....
Why doesn’t the schools hit up the parents? They do for every thing else. I have never spent so much money until the beginning of each school year. What about the lottery money that is suppose to be used to help with school funding. I am all for cut backs…
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