School districts across the state are feeling the pinch of shrinking budgets, and the Bigfork School District is no exception.
According to Eda Taylor, the district’s business manager, current projections show budget decreases of about 8 percent for the high school and 2 percent for the elementary school compared to last year’s budgets.
Much of the decrease in state funding is the result of falling enrollment at both the elementary school and the high school, Taylor said.
The bulk of state aid is based on the Average Number Belonging (ANB) for each school.
The bigger problem, however, is that even though the state increased its funding contribution by 1 percent for 2011-12, it isn’t enough to cover the loss of one-time-only stimulus money received in the last biennium.
“When people hear we’re getting a 1 percent increase, it doesn’t necessarily mean we’re getting more dollars,” Taylor said.
The 1 percent increase included in state legislation from this year’s session will generate an additional $35,000 for the elementary school and $25,000 for the high school — small numbers considering both schools’ budgets total in the millions.
“It’s not necessarily new money, and it doesn’t even come close to covering the cost of inflation,” said Taylor.
The state is required by law to keep funding levels even with the cost of inflation.
House Bill 316 called for a 2.43 percent increase in state funding for 2012-13, which in theory would have made up for inflation costs not covered by this year’s 1 percent increase, Taylor said.
Gov. Brian Schweitzer vetoed HB316 last Thursday, meaning schools will only see a 1.6 percent increase in 2012, shorting them some $7.5 million.
Taylor said she doesn’t know how the state plans to pay for the legally mandated inflationary increase.
“That’s a good question,” said Taylor. “I don’t know where that money is going to come from.”
According to Taylor, about 80 percent of the Bigfork School District’s budget is associated with personnel costs.
So when original projections showed deficits of around $280,000 at the high school and $160,000 at the elementary school, staff cuts were almost inevitable.
At its May 4 meeting, the Bigfork School Board approved several staff reductions, including the elimination of one certified position and four classified positions.
The certified position was listed on the board’s agenda as a .85 full-time equivalent high school business teaching position. The classified positions were listed as a daytime custodian, an elementary special education paraprofessional, a high school special education paraprofessional and a half-time high school guidance secretary.
The board also approved two assignment reductions. A .60 FTE school psychologist position was reduced to .40 FTE, and a full-time industrial arts position was reduced to .71 FTE.
Additionally, four non-tenured teachers will not be recommended for contract renewal, Taylor said.
Superintendent Cynthia Clary said the goal is to match staff numbers with student needs. Clary said that if enrollment continues to fall as projected, more cuts will have to be made in coming years.
“Fortunately, the state allows districts to use a three-year average for ANB, so we receive money for more kids than we actually have. But it’s not always going to be that way,” said Clary. “It will catch up to us someday.”
Clary said this year’s reductions are part of the planning process for the next three to five years.
“We will continue to trim the budget and create a staff that is more in correlation to the number of students we actually have,” Clary said.
She said the district would not ask voters to pass a levy this year.
Instead, Clary said the burden is on board members and administrators to “make sure we are running as effectively and efficiently as possible.”
That includes reassigning various staff members to different positions within the district.
Many of those moves will save money and help balance the budget, but Clary said the financial benefits of the reassignments were secondary to educational gains.
“What we’re really trying to do is get qualified staff into areas where they have strengths so their qualifications are being utilized,” Clary said.
Clary said the district is still in the process of making those changes. So far, she said reactions among staff have been mostly positive.
“The staff has been very receptive,” she said.
Detailed information about the reassignments has not yet been released to the public.
In the end, Clary said the board’s main objective is to preserve the quality of education offered by Bigfork Schools.
“I want people to know that if they send their kids to Bigfork, they will get a quality education,” Clary said.
Early retirement incentive
Also at the May 4 meeting, the board approved early retirement incentive agreements for both certified and classified staff.
To aid in reducing staff costs, the district is offering two package options for certified staff and one package for classified staff. The incentives are being offered for this year only.
To be eligible for either of the certified staff incentive packages, teachers must either have 25 years of service with the Bigfork School District at the end of the school year or be 60 years of age and have at least five years of service with the Bigfork School District at the end of the school year.
According to documents provided by the board, the first option provides participants with post-retirement health insurance benefits for up to five years, up to the cost of the Single Basic Plan — currently $397 per month — not to exceed $7,500.
With this option, participating teachers must agree to provide 60 days of service to the district over a three-year period as a substitute teacher, intervention specialist, instructional coach, mentor or other educational service provider.
“It’s a great way for them to stay involved with the school,” Clary said of the service requirement.
With the second option, participants receive a flat payment of $300 per month toward their medical insurance premium for a period of five years.
To be eligible for the classified staff incentive package, employees must have 19 years of service with the Bigfork School District at the end of the current school year.
The package offers participating staff with a lump sum payment of $6,000 with no additional insurance benefits.
Eligible staff members have until May 18 to accept an early retirement incentive package.
Although staff cuts will play a major role in balancing this year’s budget, Taylor said reductions would be made in other areas as well.
Those areas include campus supplies and teaching materials, technology and activities.
“It will cross the entire budget,” Taylor said.
Regarding activities, one cost-saving proposal that is currently being considered is the elimination of high school soccer as a district-funded program.
Several students, parents and community members attended the May 4 school board meeting to show their support for the soccer program. Many said soccer is one of the reasons kids choose to attend Bigfork Schools.
“Soccer was probably chosen because it hasn’t been around for very many years, but if it were lost, I think Bigfork would lose a lot of students,” Angie Killian, whose two children play soccer, told the board.
Clary said that although she empathizes with the Bigfork soccer community, it is difficult for her to justify funding a sport that is not a Class B sanctioned activity.
According to school administrators, sports teams are selected to have their funding eliminated based on an analysis of cost and student involvement.
Last year, the board eliminated district funding for golf and cross country. Both sports raised enough money through successful fundraising efforts to continue their programs, and Clary thinks soccer could follow suit.
Taylor said that although these decisions are difficult to make, the board must put education first.
“The whole school experience—activities included—is a learning environment, but that core classroom learning environment is what we try to keep intact,” Taylor said.
The budget will not be completely balanced and finalized until the board receives final budget numbers from the state. Taylor said she expects those numbers to come in by May 15.
The final budget does not have to be approved until August, but staff members facing reduction or elimination of their positions must be notified by June 1 according to state law.
The next school board meeting, which was originally scheduled for May 18, has been moved to May 25 at 5 p.m. in the elementary school cafeteria.