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School districts finding different ways to deal with budget shortfalls

School districts finding different ways to deal with budget shortfalls

Dustin Hurst
May 6, 2010
Dustin Hurst
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May 6, 2010

During the 2010 legislative session in Idaho, lawmakers on the state’s budget setting committee had to make difficult choices about where to cut funding for government programs of all sorts.  Almost every department within state government received a budget reduction of some sort.  Most departments saw cuts of approximately 7 percent of their entire appropriations.  Public education, which makes up about half of the state budget, took the biggest hit, seeing an overall reduction of $128 million for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1.

Local schools boards, tasked with instituting solutions to cope with cuts, have become creative in finding ways to save money.  A majority of districts have considered staffing and teacher cuts, while others are looking at reducing ancillary programs, such as school-funded sports.  Some districts are tweaking school schedules to save money.

Preston School District in south Idaho has decided to reduce its students’ school week down to four days.  Dr. Barbara Taylor, superintendent of the district, defended the decision in an interview with IdahoReporter.com Wednesday, saying that the lost day does not mean lost time in teacher-to-student contact.  No alterations will be made to bus pickup or drop-off times, but bell schedules will be altered to give students more time in the classroom on the days they are in school.  By cutting out Fridays, the district hopes to save $150,000 in transportation- and labor-related costs.  The district is also changing kindergarten classes so they take place for a full day every other day of the week.

That isn’t the only cost-saving method being employed by the Preston district, however.  Officials have eliminated several assistant coaching positions and have also reduced coaching stipends by 10 percent.  Taylor said the district will continue to consider reductions in classified staffing levels.

Preston isn’t the only school district altering its schedule to get by.  Madison School District in the eastern portion of the state has cut an entire week off classes this year.  Students, who would have left school on June 4, now get to start their summer vacations on May 27.  The district believes it will save $100,000 by making the move.

Several districts will be relying on levies or other means to generate additional funds for school programs.  Marjean McConnell, assistant superintendent with Bonneville Joint School District in Idaho Falls, says that school officials in her area are looking to grab additional cash by pushing increased enrollment in an online school learning program it runs known as the Bonneville Virtual Academy.   The academy is an online resource that is available to parents, for a fee, who home school their children.

Like the Preston district, school officials in the Bonneville district are looking at cutting teacher’s aides and other staff members.  As for sports, McConnell said that area activities associations are considering shortening the length of sports’ schedules to cut down on travel expenses.  The district is not looking at reducing the size of its administrative workforce because it let two full-time employees go last year.  McConnell said the cuts are starting to hurt.   “I can’t say it’s trimming anymore; we’re cutting into the muscle and bone of the school structure,” she said.

One of the most commonly used methods of generating funds for schools is a local levy.  On Tuesday, voters in the Troy School District near Moscow approved a one-year, $723,154 levy that will fund maintenance and operations. The district’s business manager, Theresa Pierce, said that in the addition to the added cash the levy will provide, the district has cut back on supply purchases and has not budgeted any money for new textbooks for the upcoming school year.  “We’re just trying to live on bare bones,” said Pierce.   Her district has cut junior high athletics and is considering charging high school athletes fees in a pay-to-play scenario.  The district has not thought about fully cutting programs because local officials feel they are necessary for the development of students.  “Our local school board feels that sports is just as vital of an education as that offered by a textbook,” Pierce said.

Voters in the Kellogg School District in north Idaho approved a similar levy that will prevent some staffing cuts and the elimination of some sports programs, including baseball, softball, soccer, wrestling, cross country and cheerleading.  The Kellogg district will receive $2.78 million over two years from taxpayers.  It was the second time this spring voters in the area were asked to provide additional money for schools.  In March, voters overwhelmingly rejected a three-year, $3.26 million levy.

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