Reserves will keep USD 257 afloat

Register City Editor

USD 257 has sufficient money in reserve to deal with $426,000 in state aid cuts in November. However, tough decisions may have to be made next school year, Dr. Craig Neuenswander, superintendent of schools, told board members Wednesday night.
USD 257 has $500,000 in a contingency reserve fund that it can tap for the most recent loss in state aid, as well as $145,000 in federal stimulus money made available to the district for this school year and next.
Neuenswander reviewed the history of school funding in Kansas since the state assumed the lion’s share of responsibility. He noted that by law, base state aid per pupil today should be $4,597; it is $4,012. Overall reductions from state revenue shortfalls have meant a loss of $1.1 million in operating capital for USD 257 since September 2008.
The district has taken several steps to cope with less state aid. LaHarpe elementary school was closed, textbook purchases were delayed, staff was reduced and one day was cut from the calendar.
Looking ahead, if no further state aid cuts are made, the district will face a $267,000 reduction in funding in 2010-11 because of enrollment loss.
“We had a net loss of 107 students this year, including 80 who moved from the district,” Neuenswander said. “We were able to use last year’s enrollment to figure this year’s budget, but next year we’ll have to deal with the enrollment and funding losses.”
Also, he said, state funding could be cut further if revenue shortfalls continue in Topeka.
The only opportunity for additional local revenue is to increase the capital outlay fund to 8 mills, the legal limit; it’s at 5 mills this year. That would add $153,000, which would be restricted to building improvements and some equipment purchases, although transferring such financial responsibilities from the general fund would free up money.
Alternatives, Neuenswander said, would be to delay textbook purchases again, a savings of $100,000; reduce purchases of supplies, cut field and activity trips and curtail professional development, to save $50,000; and reduce the number of days in class, maybe even go to a four-day week, to save $6,200 for each day reduced.
The district could move the Crossroads alternative school from Gas, to save $13,000, and revive a textbook fee, with $40 per student raising about $21,000.
“We also could look at reducing staff,” Neuenswander said, noting that salaries are 77 percent of the budget.
“The bottom line is we have some options, particularly this year with the contingency and federal stimulus money,” he said. “It’s not a rosy outlook but we haven’t been hurt as much as some districts. Some already are cutting staff.”
Board members will meet Jan. 4 at 6 p.m. in the Iola High library to discuss budget options for the remainder of this school year and for 2010-11.

NEUENSWANDER pointed to the Legislature’s zeal for cutting taxes as the primary reason for reduced funding.
“You can’t blame it all on the recession,” he said. “When the formula for state funding changed in 1992, a statewide property tax levy of 32 mills was put in place to fund schools.”
The levy grew to 35 mills before the Legislature began to reduce the levy when the state’s economy was growing and the tax was generating more than enough money to meet needs of schools. Eventually it slid to 20 mills and has stayed there.
Neuenswander noted that the original impact of the funding formula in 1992-93 increased USD 257’s budget $894,000 and its overall levy dropped 42.08 mills from 87.69 to 45.61. The local levy today is a touch over 48 mills.