Grant schools brace for budget cuts

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By Ryan Naus

Facing a $1.8 million deficit, the Grant County school district has been forced to make changes as they approved a tentative budget during their May 14 school board meeting.

The school district eliminated nine teaching positions from the high school and middle school, while one teacher was let go from an elementary school due to the reduction in the number of students.

“We’ve already put in place $836,000 in cuts for next year,” superintendent Michael Hibbett said. “Mostly it was a reduction of hours for certain employees, days on continuing contracts and cutting all of our maintenance and supply budgets to the bone.”

“We went to cap size on classes at the middle school and the high school, which eliminated 10 teaching positions,” Hibbett said. “But in those teaching positions, we were able to bring some of those back with different funding.”

The cuts forced the cap size on classes to one to 29 students in a sixth grade class and a cap size of one to 31 students in seventh to 12th grade classes.

“The SEEK formula is funded on the maximum number that the department of education says you should have in a class. In our district, we’ve always had a lower cap size at the middle and the high school. This year, we were unable to do that,” Hibbett said.

“If the SEEK formula comes through and we have higher revenue in the fall, we’ll try to put back all those teaching positions, but right now we have to be conservative,” he said. “We’re being conservative so we don’t get caught in the fall with a cut in the SEEK formula and having all these teachers employed and having to take money out of our contingency account (money carried over from each year), which we don’t want to do.”

While the $1.8 million deficit affects this year, the district is spreading the cost over the next several years so the effect is not so drastic.

“The deficit we’re looking at is not an immediate $1.8 million. Well it is, but we have enough to cover most of it. Our issue is that our enrollment has flat-lined, so we can’t count on that growth money for the next couple of years,” Hibbett said. “We have the $836,000 to cut this year, another $500,000 next year and if we have to, another $500,000 the following year, so we’re spreading it over three years. What we’re trying to do is spread it out over three years and still have our contingency accounts where the board wants them to be.”

An area of concern was keeping a nurse at each school in the district, but with need in other areas, Hibbett and the school board have to work to keep essentials.

“The reality is that we’re not required to have nurses in all the buildings,” Hibbett said. “We are required to adhere to 504 plans, which cover accommodations for students with identified disabilities that don’t require special education, and handicapped situations. We are required to meet the emergency needs of all our students. We have to have trained personal to do that, but it doesn’t have to be a nurse. Right now, we’re cutting non-essentials. I don’t like cutting teachers and raising that cap size. My goal is to put all that back as soon as possible, but it might be that we have to re-do services in other areas and that’s just the way it works.”

Although they are not required, Hibbett and the school board are working to keep students safe and keep the nurses in each building.

“We’re trying to figure out how to bring the nurses back. We would have brought back four anyway, including Rhonda Schlueter (district health coordinator), even with the reductions. The general fund would have paid for two and a health department grant we normally receive would have paid for two,” Hibbett said. “We’re looking at stimulus funds to see if we can get through next year to keep the remaining nurses on. Every year, we give the nurses a non-renewal letter due to funding, but if we have the money, we bring them back. Fortunately, the last seven years we’ve been able to bring them back. This year, a combination of revenues being down and enrollment flat-lining is the perfect storm for a district.”

“We have many students with medical conditions that require a nurse to be there,” Schlueter said. “More students, now more than ever, have food allergies or allergies that may need emergency services that no one would be able to do safely. Especially with the economic times, the school nurse may be the only source for the student to have health care.

“Twenty years ago, I was the only school nurse and we did not have as many students or as many health conditions,” Schlueter said. “It was difficult to run between the schools and if we had less nurses, that’s what they would have to do. They might not be there at the moment when we have an emergency with one of our staff members or students. That’s why we feel it’s important to have the nurses.”

The district also reduced teacher aides’ hours from seven and a half hours a day to six hours a day. The district also cut dental insurance in half for employees, as the district will continue to pay half while employees will pay the other half. This should save the district $40,000.

The district is basing the tentative budget off of the SEEK formula money received last year. The SEEK formula money could increase or decrease based on the state’s budget, but Hibbett believes Grant County won’t receive any less than they received last year.

“My feelings are that they aren’t going to go below what they paid last year,” he said. “We didn’t put in the increase that’s projected for this year. What I’m hearing is that there will be a 3 percent cut in the department of education budget and that will trickle down to us. We’re not counting on the SEEK formula for next year to increase. My guess is that the legislature will go backwards, but they certainly won’t put any increases in next year if they can’t afford it.”

While the tentative budget was approved on May 14, it is still open to adjustments from now until September when the working budget has to be approved. Part of an adjustment might be on the state mandated 1 percent raise for teachers. If the state doesn’t fund it, Hibbett believes the district will have to make some changes.

“They’ve mandated the 1 percent raise for teachers,” Hibbett said. “We’re set for the fall on conservative issues, but if they cut that money at all, then we’ll have to make some immediate adjustments.”

While dealing with the financial side of education, Hibbett acknowledges the fact that when school starts in August, the students will attend school, regardless of the financial situation.

“The future of the country is the young people. Grant County Schools are pushing to be a top 20 school district. But if you cut too much funding, you stagnate us and then the question becomes is the local community going to pick up the slack or are the legislators? My students need the chance to get better. To me, not having enough money isn’t an answer anymore,” Hibbett said.

“Our goal is to keep everything focused on the classroom and teachers will have to accept the fact that we’ll have to do our job with less,” he said. “To be frank, that’s what education is all about anyways. We’ve always done what’s best. We try to put the best product on the table for what we’ve got. Bottom line is that about 3,800 students will show up on Aug. 13, no matter what the budget says,” he said. “If we have to reduce certain services, we will, but the classroom is where we’re going to keep things going.”