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State funding increase creates new budget decisions for South Washington County Schools

South Washington County Schools will see additional state funding for the first time in five years, but there is no consensus among District 833 School Board members on whether to pull back any of the $2 million proposed cuts for next year, School Board Chairman Ron Kath said following a budget discussion last week.

The district faced a $6 million deficit for 2013-14 when it began planning the budget earlier this year. That assumed no funding increase.

The board settled on $2 million in cuts for next school year, including increasing class sizes by an average of nearly one student, increasing walking distances for secondary students by one-half mile and cutting expenses and two positions in operations. That brought the projected deficit to $4 million and would have been covered by the district's fund balance. Using that amount of reserves, however, would have left a fund balance of 5.8 percent of the operating budget -- on the low end of the district's goal of maintaining 5 to 9 percent of the budget in reserves.

Aaron Bushberger, district finance director, explained this year's legislative changes at last week's board meeting, which will cut the $4 million deficit by half and boost the fund balance to 6.6 percent, or $11 million, at the end of June 2014.

The school district's operating budget is roughly $172 million, with state funding comprising 80 percent of the revenue.

Board member Jim Gelbmann asked that the board use some of the state aid increase to cancel its plan to increase class sizes for a $1.5 million savings. The community has always valued small class sizes, he said.

District management has a plan that could be done and has asked for flexibility, said board member Laurie Johnson. "We ought to stick to it," she said.

"It's 22 teachers," Gelbmann said.

Kath said the district is still deficit spending even with the state aid increase. Taking back planned spending cuts only makes it worse in coming years, he said.

Board member Katy McElwee-Stevens said she would rather revisit going back to a 1.5-mile walking distance for secondary schools. But she also said she is concerned about deficit spending.

"I'm comfortable with the staffing," she said.

Dave Bernhardson, assistant superintendent for elementary education, said a projection of next year's class sizes is an actual average increase of 0.7, not one student.

With state assistance to keep class sizes low in grades K-3, class sizes will range from 21 to 22.6 students and rise to 27 in grades 4 and 5.

Transportation issues

Board member Marsha Adou said she didn't hear parents complaining about class sizes but has heard concerns about the walking distances. On the other hand, adding all-day kindergarten in the fall of 2014 at no charge would increase the transportation budget, Adou said.

There are several transportation areas that need attention from a safety standpoint, said Mike Vogel, assistant to the superintendent for facilities. One situation, at 75th Street and Jamaica Avenue in Cottage Grove, could be remedied with crossing guards.

If the district lowers the 55 mph standard for hazardous situations to 45 mph, it will wipe out $170,000 in projected savings, he said, and would potentially include busing students inside the one-mile limit for elementary students.

The board will decide the final 2013-14 budget at the June 20 meeting.

New laws impact school district

The 2013 legislative session caused a number of changes to South Washington County Schools. The new education laws:

-- Increase education funding by 1.5 percent, boosting District 833 aid by $1.6 million.

-- Offer school districts the option to approve levy referendums, such as the two levies District 833 School Board members want to renew in November, by board resolution instead of asking for voter approval. If the District 833 School Board chooses to renew by resolution, there are implications and limitations on future referendums. The referendum options will be discussed at the board's June 20 meeting.

-- Increase compensatory aid for pilot programs by $140,000, up from $65,000.

-- Bump up special education aid by $240,000. It will not directly increase revenue but go to pay for what the district is already spending.

-- Change the direction of integration funding to an achievement emphasis, which will cause a loss of $55,000 to District 833.

-- Raise career and technical spending limit by $100,000.

-- Provide enough state funding beginning in the fall of 2014 so districts can offer all-day, tuition-free kindergarten. The district currently charges parents to enroll students in a full-day program. Parents can still opt for half-day only. The district will still get the funding for full-day kindergarten and can spend whatever it doesn't use on kindergarten to buy down the cost of preschool, said Dave Bernhardson, District 833 assistant superintendent for elementary education.

Decisions about kindergarten transportation, staffing and space allocations are expected by Oct. 1, he said.

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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