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District will add $2 million to budget

It appears District 833 officials will add $2 million to next year's budget to enhance education. The additions, and $5 million over two years for teacher severance and retirement health insurance, will be discussed further on June 8 with final action on June 22.

Because the School Board slashed the budget over three years in anticipation the Legislature would not give additional money for education, changes in property tax evaluation, and lower expenses than projected, the district has an $11 million fund balance.

The money cannot be spent to build or repair district schools and other facilities, according to state law.

The dilemma for board members is that it is one-time money. Once spent, there is no guarantee the excess will be there in coming years.

It appears that decisions to cut in lean years are as difficult as deciding how to spend when times are better.

Last week, at a workshop meeting where board members discuss items in a more casual atmosphere than during regular monthly meetings but do not vote, consensus was reached to put $5 million over a two-year period into the teachers' retirement account to cover severance and health insurance after teachers retire.

The $6 million deficit in the fund will be erased with the district's contribution and interest on investments. The internal finance committee also endorses the $5 million-plan.

Board Member Jim Gelbmann, who urged the district be more aggressive in spending excess funds, got little support from other board members. He supports putting the money into the teacher retirement plan. "It's a huge compromise," he said. "I could tell I wasn't going to win."

State laws due to take effect after June of next year require half of the money for teacher retirement services be placed in an irrevocable trust. The district would hold the other half.

The board will likely put the district's half in a dedicated fund that could be tapped if the district is ever in dire circumstances.

Board Member Denise Kapler has a conservative view on spending. "I don't want to get into a position of dismantling a program such as the four-period day," she said.

The board took a "middle of the road" approach.

"I hesitate to spend it all because the Legislature can change," said Board Member Tracy Brunette.

The board also discussed the $2 million list of items proposed by administrators to be added to next year's budget to offer additional education enhancements.

District officials have already approved reducing class sizes by one-half student starting this fall.

When the smoke cleared from the discussion, all the proposals on the list appear to be supported by board members, including $235,000 to begin a string-orchestra program in elementary schools.

Also likely to be approved is a program for profoundly gifted elementary-age children and for social workers in elementary schools at a cost of $$244,000, with the number of hours based on enrollment.

Other programs include help for reading and math programs.

Board members discussed spending some money for one-time upgrades in technology. "I favor that to show that we are really serious," Adou said.

The district has already committed $1.1 million for technology next year, including $600,000 for surveillance cameras for elementary schools, according to Mike Vogel, assistant to the superintendent for operations.

Judy Spooner
Judy Spooner is the longest-serving staff writer at the South Washington County Bulletin. Spooner, who covers education and features in addition to writing a weekly column, has been with the newspaper for over 30 years.
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