All-day K, buses stay in budget

Sean C. Morgan

The School District 55 Budget Committee approved on May 27 a budget that includes an expanded kindergarten program next school year, while preserving a 5-percent ending fund balance.

The 2014-15 budget moves to the board on June 9 for adoption during its regular meeting. The budget must be adopted by the end of the fiscal year, June 30.

The approved budget expands kindergarten to full days twice a week next school year. The program will be open to all kindergarten students.

This year, federal Title I funds pay for “extended kindergarten,” two full days of kindergarten per week, for kindergarten students who need the extra help. Federal revenues will be lower next school year, and the district staff proposed cutting extended kindergarten to make up the difference.

In its place, Supt. Don Schrader proposed all-day kindergarten begin in 2014-15 and then proposed a less costly alternate, expanded kindergarten. The district would keep the staff currently funded federally in the extended program.

In 2015-16, the state legislature will begin funding all-day kindergarten for all students.

The approved budget also will hold off on planned reserve transfers if the General Fund ending fund balance falls below 5 percent, about $1.05 million. Among the transfers are $100,000 to textbooks and technology, $75,000 to long-term maintenance and $75,000 to early retirement. And a General Fund transfer of $35,000 to food services was decreased to $15,000.

In the meantime, the district would continue to look for cost reduction opportunities throughout the year.

Based on the approved budget, the district cannot make the proposed transfers, said Business Manager Kevin Strong. It can make those transfers only if the district has a larger ending fund balance than the budget proposes.

That could happen if the district reduces expenditures during the year or receives unanticipated revenue.

As proposed, the district would have had an ending fund balance of $807,000, about 3.8 percent of the General Fund.

The budget also includes the purchase of four new buses.

Budget Committee members had been concerned about the ending fund balance falling below 5 percent.

The committee had discussed financing the buses to help increase the ending fund balance. During the next 10 years, the state will reimburse 70 percent of the price of the buses. That reimbursement will be placed into the bus replacement fund to help pay for future purchases.

Several committee members were concerned that the proposed budget would expend some $600,000 more than it will receive in revenue.

“I don’t know why this is the first year we see improvements we have to go in the red,” said Chanz Keeney, board member. “Why can’t we be even?”

Strong explained to the board that historically, the district has sometimes spent more and other times spent less. He pointed out that the buses are a one-time expense, which represents more than half of those funds.

It’s not really spending in the red, Strong said. It doesn’t involve borrowing money. It’s more like a checking account, and the question is how much the committee wants to spend out of the account.

“I told you I wanted a 5-percent ending fund balance,” said an appreciative Leena Ellis, a board member. “And you got that for me.”

Committee members floated several motions to approve the budget but were unable to gather enough votes to approve a budget prior to calling board member Jenny Daniels, who did not attend the meeting.

Mike Reynolds moved to approve the option ultimately passed by the committee, but it was defeated 5-3, with David VanDerlip, Keeney and Brandell Braatz voting no.

VanDerlip moved to approve a budget with expanded kindergarten but borrowing funds to pay for buses, noting that the annual interest would be $8,000 on $352,000 in borrowed funds. The total price of the buses was about $442,000. Voting no on it were Ellis Braatz, Keeney, Dale Keene, Reynolds and Diane Gerson.

Braatz wanted to reduce a new administrator position by .3 full-time equivalent, time spent as “director of student achievement,” which would handle curriculum director duties along with coordinating Title I programs. Ellis moved to reduce funding for the position, but the committee turned down the motion 7-1, with Braatz, Keeney, Keene, Reynolds, Gerson, Celeste Van Cleave and VanDerlip voting no.

Keeney moved that the committee schedule another meeting, but the committee turned down his motion.

Braatz and Keeney said they wouldn’t vote for expanding kindergarten this year, leaving the committee deadlocked. It needed a majority of its 14 members, eight votes, to approve the budget. Nine attended the meeting, with Chairman Don Hopkins voting only if necessary.

To break the deadlock, the committee contacted Daniels by phone, approving the budget 8-2, with Keeney and Braatz voting no. Voting yes were Daniels, Ellis, VanDerlip, Reynolds, Keene, Hopkins, Van Cleave and Gerson. Absent were Board Chairman Jason Redick, Jason Van Eck, Kevin Burger and Teresa Wilson.

Braatz said that one study showed that gains from all-day kindergarten evaporated by the end of the third grade. She noted that a summary of research provided by the superintendent was mostly in favor but included comments by members of the state Board of Education, who said there needs to be more research.

“I’m not completely against all-day kindergarten,” Keeney said. “I think it helps.”

The district has been talking about improving student performance through the sixth grade, especially first through third grade, he said, but he doesn’t see where the district has done it. If the state wants to help, then it should have been helping out more in recent years with those grades.

The district has other priorities, including reducing class sizes and increasing test scores as well as restoring previously cut programs and positions, Keeney said.

“What we’ve tried to address here are the needs of the kids,” Schrader said. What’s in the budget is “there because we have a need.”

He noted that class sizes are difficult to control adding one or two staff members.

It’s a tradeoff for small schools like Holley, where a class reached 34 at the beginning of the year, Strong said. In small schools, the number of students in each grade can vary widely. A large single elementary school would decrease the variance.

On average, Sweet Home’s class sizes are “very small,” Strong said.

At the beginning of the year, he saw classes with more than 30, Keeney said.

“That’s my issue. I’m not OK with that class size, and I know a lot of other people aren’t either. It hasn’t been addressed in this budget.”