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Teachers worry, SL district girds for potential deep cuts in uncertain economy

Thursday, February 5, 2009

No Storm Lake school district teachers are currently being pink-slipped because of the current budget crunch, but the district is in a position where it can't make any promises for the coming year, says Superintendent Paul Tedesco.

"We would like to be able to look at everybody and say your job is going to be same next year, but I don't think that is really a possibility," Tedesco said.

In a time of rumors and uncertainty, district leaders know the situation is taking a toll on its teachers and staff.

"It is becoming a real concern - it is something that is distracting everyone. We hear quite a bit that people are worried whether their jobs or programs will get X-ed out. We would love to say 'don't worry' - but we know we can't. The fears and concerns are going to keep nagging away at people, but right now it in mostly in an underground sort of way," the superintendent said.

"Although the teachers are worried, they are not letting it impact their performance in the classrooms, and I don't think we have seen any instances where students' educations have suffered."

When it comes to talking cuts, it is impossible to ignore the teaching staff. "In our district, 81.3 percent of our expences are in salaries and benefits. The question is what are we going to do differently. We don't think we have anyone on staff at this moment who isn't doing something important to contribute to the education of our children. That's where you would find the savings, but we can't afford to reduce what we are doing for students."

Like all districts, the economic noose is tightening around Storm Lake's educational neck. Growth is limited, and costs rising - this year spiking fuel costs and now an exceptionally cold winter translate into high energy spending.

There are still many unknowns as districts try to flesh out their budgets for the coming academic year. Teacher pay is under negotiation, and it remains to be seen what the state will offer for an allowable-growth percentage.

Local State Representative Gary Worthan says the figure being thrown around in the statehouse most often is 4 percent allowable growth for schools this year, a figure that would normally be considered liveable in the education community.

"There is speculation, however, that the state would pass this 4 percent growth and then not fund it all - that means that if schools want to increase their budgets by that much, they have to throw it back on the local property taxpayers by raising taxes, or get the money someplace else."

In Storm Lake, if 4 percent growth is passed and funded by the state, the district would expect about $672,000. But if the state would only actually fund 2% of the allowable growth, $336,000 would be lost.

"We would have to do without, and possibly live off our reserve," Superintendent Tedesco reflects.

Not a prospect the board of education relishes.

The carry-over balance going into this year was about $1.3 million, and the district had hoped to boost it up to $2 million. Instead, it is already overspending its revenue by an estimated $90,000 this year, and it could be forced to dip deep into the reserve next an estimated $90,000 this year.

The carry-over is what gets the district through the bills of the summer months, when it has little revenue coming in, and shields it from a sudden emergency expense. If the safety cushion is not there, the district could be forced to borrow money to get through a lean cash-flow time.

As Reading First revenue dropped by $375,000, for example, the district had to dip into reserves to make sure the reading emphasis was maintained. "What else is going to change on us before next year?" says Tedesco.

Don't ask. At the statehouse, Worthan says the outlook for the 2010 session could be as bad or worse than this year, with dismal prospects for tax receipts. Schools could see even less allowable growth.

Governor Culver's across-the-board state spending cut has also had an impact on schools. "You can't blame him for doing that in this economy, but we don't really have a place where we can look at spending $160,000 less," Tedesco said.

With citizens facing leaner times of their own, the district also doesn't cherish the prospects of the remaining alternative, a tax increase in the form of a cash reserve levy proposal.

"For property tax oweners in any district, that would not be good news," Tedesco said, but he reflects that moving funding more toward the local side than state side could be helpful in the long run.

"When economic times come out of this recession, whether it is a year or two or four, we would not be underfunding our schools. I think we have to be forward looking, and thinking about where we want to be when we come out of this. At least people would get the chance to make the decision locally."

Meanwhile, the district is preparing to make painful cuts, while hoping it doesn't come to that.

Right now, no sports or extra-curricular programs are on the chopping block, according to the superintendent.

"We are at the stage now where we talk about it, put it down and bring it back, look at it again. It might seem like an easy answer to cross a program out of the budget and save x amount of dollars, but we don't want to make a snap decision like that. We have to take time to think it through and see if there can possibly be another option to cutting something."

Storm Lake schools are not alone in their concerns.

Spencer, a similar district in the Lakes Conference, a volunteer group has been formed to search for $350,000-$50,0000 in budget, staff and program cuts for 2009-2110. Among the things suggested to date as potental for the chopping block are debate, mock trial, boys swimming, elementary summer school, some in-town bus routes, high school teachers in math and science as well as staff members at other levels, several coaching positions, and reassignments of staff, such as using art teachers to teach P.E. classes.

Storm Lake district officials say they don't want to put the burden on the public to make the tough decisions, but that people are welcomed to give their input on priorities for spending to the school board. Once the state makes a decision on funding, "It could be a pretty quick decision that has to be made between spending down the ending balance, property tax or making cuts," Tedesco said. "We're looking at everything we can."

The district does not have a flush Physical Plant and Equipment Levy (PPEL) to lean on - the high school gym roof recently required replacement, and the project ate through two years of PPEL revenues.

Although the district remains open to sharing, other districts have shown little interest, so that may not happen in time to help offset the economic crunch, officials say.

"We met with our neighbor districts a couple of years ago. We realize that with numbers comes the possibility of a better revenue picture and more programs and options for extra-curriculars," Tedesco said. "People may wonder why we aren't in talks with them - but we feel like we made the presentation, they know we are here. We don't want to force ourselves on anybody."

Some classes in the high school are struggling. "When you have four kids, seven kids sign up for a class, where do you put the cut-off and say we can't afford to offer this any more? If we could do a sharing agreement, and a neighboring school or schools could give us seven more students for that class, maybe it stays viable," Tedesco said.

Sharing teachers is an option, but there is concern with potential classroom time lost with educators in transit. "I suppose it is better than having whole groups of students on the road, though," the superintendent suggests.

Grants can help specific programs, but when they run outm the district is left to scramble for new money to keep a program alive.

Another option is to try to make more extra-curricular programs self-supporting.

"Every program is under stress. It is wonderful when boosters or donors or fundraisers can help with something like uniforms or equipment - but we don't feel like we can expect these people to pay for the salary of the staff person or the bus rides to events."

The district must also take care how funds are allocated. Title IX regulation requires equal attention to boys and girls sports. "If we obtain a lot of money for one particular sport or program, we are obligated to somehow balance it out," the superintendent said.

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