Written by Don Ratzlaff Tuesday, 16 March 2010 18:25
Like most school districts across the state, Unified School District 410 is hoping for the best but preparing for the worst with the likelihood of another reduction in state aid for the 2010-11 school year.
At last Monday’s school board meeting, superintendent Steve Noble released a list of cuts that could be made if the district faces its worst-case scenario of a $475,000 reduction from the current year’s budget.
The list of cuts totaled $360,300, including the elimination of five high school sports programs—softball, baseball, golf, girls’ tennis and boys’ tennis—as well as middle school wrestling.
The strategy also includes transfering $175,000 from the district’s operating reserve, which is a one-month emergency safety-net if the state is late or fails to deliver, the district’s monthly allotment. Noble said the funding has arrived late each of the past six months.
In the worst-case scenario, which is based on no increases in state revenue, the base per-pupil state aid to schools will be cut from the current $4,012—already a reduction from the pre-recession $4,492 in 2008—to around $3,700.
“Even in the worst-case scenario, I?think we’ll be able to scale back that list (of cuts),” Noble said.
But the first-year superintendent is hopeful the legislature will approve revenue enhancements this session that could keep the per-pupil funding level at $4,012.
“They’re having conversations about revenue increases for the first time,” Noble said, referring to support from Kansas Senate President Steve Morris, R-Hugoton, and Vice Presiden John Vratil, R-Leawood, to initiate a combination of tax increases totaling $300 million.
If approved, the revenue increase, combined with $100 million in spending cuts, would be expected to balance the fiscal 2011 budget. Morris has called for a combination of tax increases, including on tobacco and alcohol sales, to raise the $300 million.
“One of their goals for doing that is it to spare K-12 education,” Noble said. “So I’m real pleased with that.”
Even if per-student aid were to remain at $4,012, Noble added, the district will still face a cut of roughly $105,000 as a result of a projected enrollment loss of 16 students next fall.
“That’s a local issue, that’s not the state’s responsibility,” Noble said. “We’ve got a plan for that cut, regardless what happens.”
Noble said an accompanying decision the board must make is how low to allow the district’s operating reserve to dwindle in an effort to reduce cuts. Noble’s suggested transfer of $175,000 would bring that fund to what he believes should be the absolute minimum.
“My minimum is the $400,000 threshold so we can at least meet payroll,” he said. “And we’ve got to pay our vendors, we’ve got to pay our utilities—those kinds of things. So we have to be careful about how low we go with our reserves.”
As a stop-gap measure, Noble said school districts are allowed to “borrow” from their capital outlay fund to cover operating expenses, but the money must be reimbursed as soon as it becomes available.
“Until things turn around longterm for this state,” Noble said, “we need to keep a healthy reserve on hand locally so we can control our own destiny, so to speak, and not be at the mercy of saying, ‘State, we need money so we can pay our people.’”
To compile his list of 36 possible cuts, Noble first met with teaching and administrative staff at each building: elementary, middle school and high school.
“I said don’t look at somebody else’s building and say, ‘You can cut that service.’ I said look at what you do—from lights being left on, to thermostats being lowered, to let’s only clean our rooms every other day.
“They offered some good ideas to reduce costs,” Noble said.
He met in similar meetings with classified staff—such as custodians, cooks and bus drivers—as well as the site council for each building.
“From all of these groups of people we met with,” Noble said, “the leadership team had the task of looking at all the ideas and fine-tuning that list (of possible cuts).”
Noble said he scuttled his earlier idea of inviting other patrons to join the process.
“As we dove into our budget, we found that many of the programs and services we provide are tied to people, obviously,” Noble said. “Sometimes a program is one person.
“So it became incredibly difficult to have a conversation with a group of patrons about personnel. We chose not to go that route to protect our personnel.”
Most damaging cuts
Noble included the possible loss of sports programs on his personal list of “most damaging cuts” for the educational goals at USD 410. He said athletics is part of the district’s commitment to have “outstanding activities” as one of the four “pillars” in its core mission.
The other three pillars are high academic achievement, excellence in fine arts and an unparalleled commitment to technology.
Noble also said he realizes the loss of sports programs may be the most volatile issue the board will face.
“The leadership team said it’s time we put sports on the table, and I applaud them for that,” Noble said. “It’s difficult to do. It’s going to be a highly debatable topic.
“We’re going to have people who are going to be very supportive of athletics, and we’re going to have people who say sports are a frill we don’t need in today’s economy—our public schools don’t need to be offering that.”
Noble said he sees the educational value of athletic participation for a broad spectrum of students.
“It’s probably our most effective at-risk program because we can tie so many policies that prevent at-risk type of behavior, because (athletics) is not a property right of the student, it’s a privilege,” he said.
Those at-risk behaviors range from drug and alcohol use to failing grades, he added.
“We also have the fact that it enriches kids’ lives,” Noble said. “So even for the kids who do solid in school, this adds another component to their character, the personality, they’ll take on in life—like a competitive nature, hard work, overcoming adversity.
“That piece is vital.”
Beyond athletic programs, Noble identified five other cuts as potentially most damaging:
• Field trips.
“Whether they’re local field trips or out-of-state trips, I think those are important for learning opportunities for kids,” Noble said.
“People disagree with me because kids are gone too much from the classroom,” he added. “I understand that, but the world is our classroom.”
• Instructional materials.
• Reducing the number of dramas/musicals to one a year instead of two.
• The loss of activity bus routes to Lehigh and Durham.
“They are already busing their kids here to go to school,” Noble said of patrons in those communities. “I think the least we can do is get them back home after these activities.”
• Professional development for staff.
“People don’t equate that to being very close to kids,” Noble said. “But if we think we can stop learning as adults, we will hurt kids. In our profession, learning is not a stagnant thing.”
Noble said he is looking forward to the “Community Conversation” gathering planned for April 8. He said the plan is to set up 100 chairs.
“If we were to have standing room, I think that would be awesome because it simply shows that Hillsboro people care about their schools,” he said. “I think in Hillsboro we can have a community conversation, and I think it can remain an amicable community conversation.”
Noble praised the work of his board and leadership team as they have worked through the latest funding reductions.
“Everybody was at the table that had a voice in (the outcome),” he said. “The board has been willing to listen to all possibilities.”
He said board members have been patient and deliberate in their approach.
“In my short experience here, there aren’t knee-jerk reactions here,” Noble said. “They contemplate, discuss, ponder, listen, share opinions. It’s a process, and they are processing it very well.”
Noble said the option of cutting “fat” from the program is long gone, if it ever existed.
“Our board realizes the decisions they make relative to this (financial crisis) will have potential, unseen, lasting impacts—positive or negative—that we won’t know until they play out.
“So we have to be very careful about what we cut.”