Making sense of school dollars

Sunday, June 8, 2003

Threatened with the loss of millions in state education funding, local school districts are finding panicked solutions to what some call the worst financial situation in Missouri's education history.

In Scott City, leaders are yanking some athletic funding, freezing salaries and increasing employees' share of medical insurance premiums.

Cape Girardeau School District officials are considering a tax levy increase, and putting off maintenance projects and buying computers.

And while the Jackson district is already severely understaffed, superintendent Dr. Ron Anderson said administrators eliminated 15 teaching positions.

Money in return

Even as school districts make massive cuts to staff and budgets, Missouri legislators say the fiscal year 2003-04 budget may be at least partially restored.

With an infusion of $390 million in new federal money -- $72 million of which would go to education -- members of the Missouri House of Representatives and Senate say they can give school districts the same amount those districts received in 2002-03.

However, many endured state budget cuts in 2003 as well, sending school districts such as Scott City and Jackson to reserve funds to make up for the unexpected shortfall. At least one district, Jackson, will be forced to do that again next year because of additional cuts.

"We have struggled mightily with this, and that's absolutely the best we can do," said Senate President Pro Tem Peter Kinder, R-Cape Girardeau. "I think schools are breathing a sigh of relief."

Legislators say cuts in state funding could be offset by increases in property assessments, which generate local funding for school districts. However, the highest increase that local districts are projecting is 3 percent, which school officials say will not be nearly enough to cover cuts.

"Even budgeting as much as a 5 percent increase in assessment, there's no way that amount is enough," said Jim Welker, assistant superintendent of finance at Jackson. "That's not even enough to cover the cuts we got this year, let alone next year."

Here's a look at how three local school districts will be impacted by the state budget cuts if the current plan is approved.

Cape Girardeau

Anticipating a $673,000 decrease in state funding and a $1.4 million increase in personnel costs, the Cape Girardeau School District phased out eight teaching positions through attrition, not replacing personnel who have retired, resigned or transferred to other positions.

The district will spend an additional $285,000 on insurance alone next year, just to maintain the same coverage that was offered in 2002-03. In total, with state cuts and increased expenditures, the district has a funding deficit of $918,000 for the next year, said chief financial officer Rob Huff.

Despite the budget shortfall, district officials are honoring a promise made in 2000 to add $1,000 to the base of the teacher salary schedule this year.

"We have worked so hard to keep commitments, we want to do that with the community and our own staff as well," said superintendent Mark Bowles.

But with attrition comes larger class sizes and increased workload for teachers, many of whom are not pleased with the cuts.

"In my 29 years of teaching, I've been through salary freezes, tax levy failures. Money trouble is not unusual," said Mary Shelton, chair of the math department at Central High School. "But this is the first time I've seen them not hire teachers who need to be replaced, and I have a real problem with that."

The elimination of four teaching positions at Central Middle School may mean class sizes of up to 30 students, faculty members have been told.

Dawn Smith, who teaches fifth grade, is one of the middle school teachers who will not be replaced next year. In March, administrators asked three middle school teachers to volunteer to be transferred, and Smith stepped forward.

"At this point, we're just glad no one lost their job, and we're sort of going with the flow," said Smith.

Next year, she'll teach first grade at Clippard Elementary.

"I'm leaving my comfort zone," Smith said. "I love it here at the middle school, but I know Clippard has a good staff and students as well."

An estimated $300,000 in salaries has been saved through attrition, but officials are still contemplating how to make up the remaining $618,000 shortfall.

One option is to decrease the district's voluntary levy reduction, which would raise property taxes.

For the past five years, the school board has chosen to voluntarily reduce the annual tax levy, so that the district is not taxing to the maximum capacity allowed under state law.

The current tax levy is set at $3.99 per $100 assessed valuation. Since the district's tax ceiling for next year is set at $4.15 annually by the state, the school board could increase the operating levy as much as 16 cents without a public vote.

The district considered a similar move last August, but decided against it after considerable public outcry, Bowles said. This year, the financial outlook is even more dreary, and increasing the levy would generate around $700,000.

Community members are not pleased with the idea of a tax increase, especially one that would take place without voter approval.

"I would hate for budget cuts to affect the quality of education in the classroom," said Margaret Yates, parent of a Central Middle School fifth-grader. "But I think we need to clean house and save money before increasing taxes. People are taxed to death already."

Officials are considering the option of dipping into reserve fund balances to generate additional money. Huff said the 9 percent of expenditures currently in reserve amounts to around $2.7 million, barely enough money to pay two months' worth of teachers salaries and nothing more.

Once fund balances drop to 3 percent, districts are at risk of a state takeover, but keeping that balance up is also important to offset inaccurate budget projections and emergencies, Huff said. Cape Girardeau officials are especially leery of lowering fund balances after narrowly escaping a state violation in 2000 when reserve funds dropped to 4 percent.

Scott City

The Scott City School District expects to receive $1.8 million from the state next year, $356,434 less than the district received in 2002-03.

The district currently has $1.2 million, about 21 percent of expenditures, in reserve. However, $61,000 of that money will go toward making up a budget shortfall from the 2002-03 school year, for which districts have not yet received state funding.

On top of state cuts, the district also has to bear the financial weight of a new 20-classroom addition and multipurpose room, said superintendent Diann Bradshaw.

While voters approved a $3.3 million bond series for construction of the building, Bradshaw said the district had to budget an additional $10,000 for utilities and $21,000 in salaries for custodial staff for the new space.

To offset those costs and the state cuts, school officials took some extreme measures.

Four elementary teacher positions emptied through retirements and promotions are not being filled. Bradshaw estimates that will save $160,000 in salaries. A total of 10 teachers assistants positions are not being filled -- two through attrition and eight through lay-offs, which will save an estimated $110,000.

"This is going to affect students directly," said Bradshaw. "In the classroom, we're going from what the state considers desirable to minimum."

Other personnel cutbacks include eliminating five assistant coaching positions, freezing salaries and capping the amount of medical insurance premiums the district would pay, forcing employees to pick up the rest. The district's Parents As Teachers and At-Risk programs also are losing employees.

Major reductions have been made to the school activities budget as well, with expenditures cut 10 to 25 percent across the board. The freshman basketball team has been eliminated, and the district has plans to reduce the number of games played in all sports to save money on bus trips and officials.

"The idea is to reduce without having to completely eliminate," Bradshaw said. "But none of it is what we want to happen."

Jackson

In Jackson, the district is anticipating a state funding loss in the coming fiscal year of at least $1 million on top of the $500,000 in state withholdings from the current year and a 20-percent increase in health insurance costs for next year.

The bulk of the shortfall will be combated through attrition. Fifteen vacated teaching positions throughout the district are not being replaced, which will generate around $700,000 in salary and benefit savings.

"I really hate it because they're so overcrowded already," said Mary Margaret Wiginton, parent of an 8th-grader at R.O. Hawkins Junior High in Jackson. "I don't see how teachers will be able to teach, and I'm worried about the quality of education."

While the district will work to keep expenditures down by reducing energy consumption, field trips and supply and technology purchases, Welker said the rest of the shortfall may have to come out of the $1.9 million, or 7 percent, the district has in reserve fund balances.

"We're already low in the amount we spend, so there's not a lot of things we can cut," Welker said.

Staff writer Marc Powers contributed to this story.

cclark@semissourian.com

335-6611, ext. 128

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