Without clear course on state funding, Hopkins School budget is ‘a shot in the dark’

Board plans for worst case with proposed $1 million in budget cuts

By Gabby Landsverk, Sun Sailor Newspapers

The Hopkins School Board has approved a preliminary budget for fiscal year 2017-2018, despite uncertainty about state funding to be determined in the legislative session, and with an eye on budget reductions based on declining enrollment and insufficient funding.
“This is probably the most difficult time of the year for me because we don’t have any idea what the possible revenue might be,” said Board Treasurer Steve Adams. “We’re kind of shooting in the dark here, trying to make some assumptions which could be upended at any moment.”

The work on the proposal has been underway for months.
“This budget started the day after you approved the ‘16-’17 budget. We began to look at efficiencies in the system,” said Supt. John Schultz. “It starts more of the long-term planning and looking to our future.”

In January, the district’s Citizens Financial Advisory Committee predicted a grim outlook for state funding through 2021. The forecast estimated a 0.5 percent annual increasing in the formula funding and prompting a conservative approach to expenses and a more aggressive look at efficiencies.
“As we continue to look toward ‘18-’19, we’ll always be hopeful for what the state can give us, and we’ll continue to look at reorganizing our departments,” Schultz said.

The current proposal calls for budget cuts of $1.144 million, the equivalent to 17.7 full-time employee positions, spread out across various departments and budget categories.

Among the departments impacted is a $150,000, 2.3 FTE, decrease to the teaching and learning department and $300,000 to the special education department, as well as $233,727 at the elementary school, and $191,943 at secondary schools through scheduling and teacher-student ratio adjustments. The English Language Learner department will also increase caseloads to reduce its budget by $64,624, or 1 FTE. A reduction of $40,000 to the district’s printing budget was also made through the elimination of a staff position.
“We already know we had to make a lot of cuts to make this budget roughly balanced,” said Warren Goodroad, board vice-chair. “So with all those cuts that we have made, we recognize that at this point, there’s a lot of unknowns for this budget in terms of revenue, given that two-thirds of our money comes from the state.”

As the legislative session carries on, more information will become available to assist the school board in fine-tuning its final budget.
“We’re budgeting aggressively on our expenses, but we also do not what’s going to happen in the legislative session,” said John Toop, director of business services.

Toop added that the final budget approval could be adjusted to account for shifts in funding or other variables.
“It’s very tight but the one good thing about this is we’re setting a preliminary budget now so we can start the staffing process. Hopefully the legislature adjourns on time this year and we’ll know much better what our revenue picture is going to be like when the board approves their final original budget for ‘17-’18 in late May or early June,” he said.
Board Chair Wendy Donovan commended staff for preparing a budget that hopes for the best but prepares for the worst.
“Every other year, we do this budgeting in the dark because we’re always waiting to see. I think you do a really good job of preparing for worst-case yet with enough room to keep everything going,” said Donovan.

Betsy Anderson, member of the board and the school’s legislative action coalition, said advocates need to stress to legislators that inadequate formula funding can have major consequences in the day-to-day lives of students and teachers.
“When you talk about the education system as a whole in this state, you can separate yourself from what that means in one classroom in one day to one kid,” she said. “The LAC tries to bring the (personalized) story to the legislature to tell them about the real impacts of what it means when you have 12-15 years of funding that doesn’t match inflation.”

Board member Kris Newcomer said the cuts are an unfortunate reality of the school’s decreasing number of students.
“We are a declining enrollment school. Even though we don’t want to cut our teachers, the ratios aren’t there so we have to cut staff when we don’t have the kids. That’s always the balance point,” Newcomer said. “We don’t have a lot of choice in our negotiations and that’s always the hard part to try to make a budget work and serve the best interest of the kids. … I think we’ve done a good job of finding efficiencies in our budget but the reality is, it comes down to the contracts.”

Toop said that budget reductions had been built into the 2018-2019 budget calculations, but cuts would become much more difficult in following years, with the district looking more closer for efficiencies and money-saving solutions.
“Reductions will get harder and harder and harder, and that’s of concern,” Toop said.

Contact Gabby Landsverk at gabby.landsverk@ecm-inc.com.