Trustees delay setting levy, hoping for better information

   The District 10 school trustees are struggling with the idea of having a levy election in April, and before a decision is made, they hope to get some better information from the legislature in Helena.
   Superintendent of School Lynn Utterback tells the I-O, “We have two positions up for election this year.  
   Incumbents Joe Russell and Kip Judisch have filed for these positions.  Both are for three year terms.
   The deadline for write-in candidates for a trustee position to file declaration of intent is April 9. Absentee Ballots will be available by April 15. Election Day for Schools is May 5.
   While at Helena last week, the comment was shared that only seven or eight legislators really understand how our schools are funded.  “The purpose of this article,” says Utterback, “is to explain what our trustees are looking at for this years budget amounts. “
   He has included a graph that explains what makes up funding in the base and maximum general budget.
   To over simplify, schools must spend a minimum amount (base budget) and cannot expend more than the maximum budgeted amount determined by a formula that is affected greatly by the number of students in attendance at the school the previous year.  
   Since the legislature has not yet decided whether to increase the dollar value of each student or increase the level of other funding components in the formula, schools do not really know what their minimum or maximum budgets can be.  
   The one exception to the maximum budget for schools that drop in enrollment is that they can keep their budget frozen at last year’s level with voter permission.
   Our school revenues change based on increases or decreases each year based on enrollment figures and any increases in funding the legislature gives us to help keep up with inflation and rising costs for salary, benefits, energy costs, supplies, text books, technology, and services.  
   “Until the legislature puts these bills forward, we do not know for sure what our maximum or minimum budgets will be or how many dollars we would need to request to remain frozen at last year’s budget.” Utterback explains.
   He goes on to say, “However, it is of course the law of the land to require these budgets be set before we have this information.  So we have to guess what the legislature will do.  The later you wait, hopefully the better information you get.  But it is always guess. “
   Following is a question and answer with Superintendent Utterback:
   Has the school done anything to cut back on costs?
   Yes, Approximately 80 percent of general fund budgets go to salary and benefits for employees.
    Last year, at the high school when two staff members left, we hired one new teacher and shifted staff allowing us to not fully replace the second teacher.  
   This spring with the retirement of one of our elementary staff, we will again shift staff to where our numbers and needs are the greatest and reduce the elementary by one full time position.  We have also have reduced central and high school office staff by two positions over the last three years.  
   However, trimming staff also reduces the programs and educational opportunities for our students.
   While recently redoing two of our buildings roofs, we added to their insulation making them more energy efficient.  We are also in the process of using rebates to defray costs of updating the lighting in the buildings in our district to save additional energy dollars.
   Do fewer students reduce your costs?  Why keep spending?
   We find that our revenue is tied closely to student numbers while our costs are not.
   Our cost for a classroom is pretty much the same whether there are 22 or 15 kids in the room.  
   The difference in funding at the elementary level for a classroom of 22 rather than 15 would be over $32,000. The only difference in costs between the two rooms might be the number of text books needed, but if the class above or behind the class of 15 is greater, we will have to have enough text books for the largest class.  
   Until our enrollment drops to a point where we can operate with fewer teachers and classrooms, it is almost impossible to reduce costs anywhere near the level our revenues are eliminated by the formula.  
   Is our enrollment dropping steadily?
   Last year because of the graduation of a large senior class our high school enrollment dropped about 19 students.  
   Currently, our eighth and seventh grade classes are both in the 50’s and our senior and junior classes in the 40’s, so it indicates an increase of students in the high school for each of the next two years.  
   This year, the elementary enrollment increased by 15 students from last year.  Since we have a large eighth grade class (55), the population may drop some in the next school year.  
   The state and federal government mandates certain class sizes be maintained, certain classes be taught, counselors be provided, and special education mandates be met.  
   Often, one-on-one aids are required to meet federal rules, but no additional dollars are provided, to meet that expense.
   We are often limited by how we can effectively use the money we receive since a lot of our dollars come to us with spending restrictions requiring them to be spent in specific areas.  
   Stay tuned to the I-O for more information and exact numbers on budgets as the trustees try to decide in advance what the legislature will do.