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South Washington County School officials plan for budget

Spending cuts and other changes are likely in South Washington County Schools' budget for next year.

Superintendent Keith Jacobus said last week that $900,000 in spending cuts or "budget adjustments" must be found if the district wants to keep the equivalent of at least 5 percent of the total budget in reserves as it puts together its preliminary budget for 2013-14.

But if the district acquires Crosswinds School in Woodbury -- a possibility if the Perpich Center for the Arts doesn't receive additional state aid by April 1 to take over Crosswinds -- there will be additions to the District 833 budget to cover some costs, Jacobus said.

The board could decide to dip below 5 percent budget reserves for one year only, though Jacobus said he isn't advocating that choice. But it's one of the items to be decided over the next month with several unknowns looming in the background.

The Legislature, in session until the end of May, has not decided whether to increase school aid over the next two years. In addition, seven of eight District 833 employee union contracts, including one covering teachers, are yet to be decided.

There was also an online survey and more than 500 people participated.

To move the budget process forward, however, School Board members and the administration, plus seven committees, have been looking at how the district spends money from another perspective unveiled by Jacobus.

In the past, budget areas have been presented to the board separately, each with a price tag. But this year, the main areas are being looked at side by side along with the cost per student and assessed a service level ranging from 1 to 5.

Earlier in the budget process, the administration suggested that class sizes could be increased by an average of one-half student, but most board members were reluctant to accept that proposal.

The service level of sites and buildings was set at level 3 by the committee that included Mike Vogel, assistant to the superintendent for operations. Committee members said that in light of the tragic school shootings in Connecticut, increasing security is very important.

Currently, $9 million is available each year in non-voter-approved funding for facilities.

It's estimated that $6.75 million is needed for security enhancements, additional middle school space and deferred maintenance. That would bump facilities up to service level 4.

District support services were set at level 2, but there is a huge need to expand technology, said Andrew Baldwin, district technology director. Jacobus said wireless Internet hubs in buildings need to be replaced or upgraded. Without additional band width, use of hand-held devices or student-owned laptops is restricted.

To move to the next service level, $10 million would be needed. Improvements can be made annually over time but would need a voter-approved referendum to complete all at once.

The current service level assigned to transportation is 3. Representatives of parochial schools, also served by district transportation, were invited to participate in the committee process.

That was the only committee that had recommendations to reduce the service level. There was support for increasing the walking distance at secondary schools by one-half mile, putting more money into transportation, an earlier start time for middle school and fees charged for busing to choice programs, according to Ernie Pines, community services director, who facilitated the committee.

School Support Services are deemed to be at service level 2. To raise it to level 3, more student mental health workers would be needed, a committee concluded.

In another service area, approximately 40 percent of the students in an average classroom are receiving special services, according to Dave Bernhardson, assistant superintendent for elementary education. Special education teachers spend too much time processing paperwork, which could be reduced with a clerk in each building, a committee said.

Next month, the administration will recommend a service level for each area of the budget. That information will be used as the board considers funding for each area.

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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