After months of crunching numbers on the Bigfork School District budget, administrators and board trustees were finally able to present a preliminary budget report at the board’s July 12 meeting.
According to the report, budgets at both the high school and the elementary and middle school have ended up in the black.
Getting to that point was anything but easy, said board chair Maureen Averill.
“It was a lot, and it took a long time to get here,” Averill said. “We started working on this in January.”
Although some numbers — including final revenues from the county — remain to be finalized, district business manager Eda Taylor said final calculations should be fairly close to current estimates.
According to current numbers, the elementary school will come in $27,655.02 under its maximum budget, and the high school will come in $5,751.69 under its maximum budget.
The state provides the majority of the schools’ budgets with the general fund, which is based on enrollment.
Compared to last year’s budget, the general fund amount decreased by about $160,000 at the high school and $34,000 at the elementary school. Those drops coincided with declining Average Number Belonging (ANB) figures at both schools.
The elementary school ANB dropped by seven, and the high school ANB dropped by 27.
“Enrollment is the issue, just like a lot of other districts in Flathead County,” said Bigfork superintendent Cynthia Clary.
After initially facing projected deficits of around $280,000 at the high school and $160,000 at the elementary school, major budget cuts were inevitable, Taylor said.
“Because of the large amount of the deficits, there was a lot of what-iffing to come up with something that would be great for our school, good for our kids and also balance the budget,” Taylor said.
Much of the trial-and-error process revolved around staff changes, which included position reductions, eliminations and reassignments.
“There were a lot of moves made and a lot of cuts made,” Taylor said. “When you have a deficit that big, you have to do a lot of cuts.”
Since the staff payroll represents approximately 80 percent of the total budget, the district could not avoid making cuts in that area, Taylor said.
“The only way to cut big dollars out, is that you have to have payroll cuts, and that’s hard,” Taylor said.
Overall, the staff changes for fiscal year 2011-2012 — including eliminations, reductions, reassignments and new hires — will save the district approximately $127,000 at the elementary school and $232,000 at the high school.
Personnel changes were mainly based on recommendations from administrators at both campuses.
“They look at it every day and see the areas that might be overstaffed,” Clary said. “It is very painful because there are people involved, but the bottom line is what’s in the best interest of the kids.”
Taylor said administrators and board members tried to make cuts in the areas that would have the least impact on the quality of education provided by Bigfork schools.
“The whole process is not just a business manager process,” Taylor said. “Guidance has to come from administrators because they know what will make the least impact.”
Since the board had two separate budgets to work with, many changes involved shifting costs from one school to the other.
“Moving supply lines and staff between the two schools really helped, because the elementary school has a bigger budget,” Clary said. “It’s amazing to see how moving teachers from the high school to the elementary school positively impacted the bottom line.”
Clary said that by moving staff, the district avoided having to make additional cuts.
“It (staff movement) turned out to be a blessing that really helped balance the budget,” Clary said.
The cuts also helped the district reach a staffing level that better matches enrollment numbers, Clary said.
“We have a staff in place that can meet the needs of our kids, and that’s the bottom line,” she said.
Even though they knew they would be faced with huge deficits when budget talks began last winter, administrators and board members decided against asking taxpayers to help make up the difference with levies.
“As schools have to tighten their budgets, we know that Bigfork families are doing the same, so it didn’t seem appropriate to ask,” Clary said.
Taylor agreed, adding that the increase in the number of Bigfork students who qualify for the free and reduced lunch program shows that families in Bigfork are struggling financially.
“We felt that we needed to tighten our belts even more, just like other people in our community were,” Taylor said.
Clary said administrators and board members wanted to demonstrate fiscal responsibility as they balanced the budget.
“Everybody has a budget at home that dictates what they can and cannot do, and the school shouldn’t be any different,” Clary said. “We just have to live within our means.”
Final budget numbers will be presented at the next school board meeting, which is scheduled at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, August 16 in the elementary school cafeteria. The board will approve and finalize the budget at that time.