School opening is a fitting time to provide a school budget update. When the state budget passed on June 30 our school district lost nearly $4 million of state funding. That makes us one of the hardest hit districts in the State. The State's poorest 150 districts (30%) lost a total of $537.5 million, an average of $518 per student. Warren County School District lost $818 per student. By comparison: the 150 wealthiest districts lost $214 per student.
In addition to lost revenue we suffered increased expenses that (by contract or law) were impossible to cut. Two-thirds of our budget is personnel. We froze our administrator's salaries. However, teachers and support staff did not agree to a salary freeze, and their increase exceeded $1.1 million. The total increased costs outside the board's control (wages, utilities, pension, etc.) were $2 million. Therefore, our final budget shortfall was $6 million. We raised taxes by $400,000 making it necessary to find cuts of $5.6 million.
Our biggest cuts came in personnel, starting at the top. Administrative reorganization resulted in a savings of 4.5 professional positions as well as 3 support positions. We reduced administrative staff by 14%.
Fifty-two teaching positions were eliminated, 17 at secondary, 22 at elementary and 13 in special education. Some of the reductions happened via retirements. However, we furloughed 28 non-tenured teachers. Total teaching staff reduction was 9%. Ten paraprofessional aide positions were eliminated, a reduction of 9%. Similarly, 9.5 custodian and maintenance positions were eliminated, a reduction of 9%.
We changed several of our transportation policies reducing numbers of stops, late bus runs and duplicate service for children of divorced parents. We eliminated transportation to and tuition payments for the dual enrollment (college credit) program. We reduced athletic funding by about $471,000 (43%), maintenance funding by $250,000 (20%) and textbook purchases by $400,000. We did away with an alternative education program, reduced our tutoring, and changed our manner of hiring substitute teachers.
Some changes will not seem particularly harsh, because we cut initiatives that were new. For example, last year we increased the number of principals to advance our board goal of getting administrators out of the office and into the classroom. In this budget we cut those positions. The tutoring and the elementary foreign language program we cut were initiated just a few years ago.
Overall, however, we cut few course offerings. By increasing class sizes, and working creatively with scheduling, we are able to preserve all our electives. Similarly, we are able to offer our normal high school curriculum, including the usual small (less than 12 students) classes.
Athletics was difficult. While athletics enhance the education of many of our students, it is not the core of our educational mission. We studied consolidation of athletic programs and elimination of middle level sports, but the implementation plans were unsatisfactory. In the end we retained all sports programs but imposed a hefty participation fee. Our many sports booster organizations stepped forward and, in a remarkably short time, raised significant funds to assist students with the fees.
Pennsylvania has not seen educational cuts like this for decadesmaybe ever. Across the state some 10,000 teaching positions were eliminated. Districts across the state (especially like ours that are heavily dependent on state funding) face similar budget cuts next year.
In our annual budget process our board uses a 5 year projection. It takes into account salary, pension, health care and other increases we know are coming; it accounts for an upcoming loss in federal funding. Even when we exclude controversial reconstruction costs, our projection shows we have a deficit, next year, of $2 million (or about 5 mills of local property tax).
That number is not surprising. The state cut of $4 million is equivalent to10 mills. That's not a one-time loss-it's annual. Moreover, for decades, poor districts like ours relied on the state to annually increase its funding to keep pace with inflation. That is because our local real estate tax base is not increasing. We can no longer count on that state help. To close next year's gap our choices are the same as this year: cut local spending and/or raise local property taxes.
Next year the process of raising local property taxes will be brand new. In the spring I wrote about potential changes in state law. The state passed those changes, and now, for any local tax increase above the "index" (about 1 mill), regardless of whether those increases are for construction or salaries, the increase will have to be approved by referendum at the spring election (law does not allow the referendum at the November elections).
It's a frustrating time to be on a school board in Pennsylvania. The state still largely controls how we hire and pay our greatest expense: teachers and support staff. The state reduced our funding by 10 mills/year and requires that we obtain local referendum approval to raise local taxes by more than 1 mill/year.
Our process is step by step. For this year's budget we formed a committee of citizens, students and staff to recommend cuts. Our board studied the 200 options the committee returned, and reduced the cut list to 50 items. For next year's budget we must start immediately, because if we seek referendum approval in the May, 2012 election, the board must adopt a preliminary budget less than 5 months from now.
In the midst of this new budget work the board must tackle the review of the Master Facilities Plan. With the work of implementing the budget cuts for this school year, our key administrators have not had time to update the statistics that underlie the MFP. The board wanted to attack the MFP study this summer and fall. However, the study of the controversial high school component, of the MFP, is now complicated by the charter school proposal being recently developed by the Eisenhower citizen's group. There is a way for the Eisenhower charter plan to go forward without approval of our school board. That will apparently happen, or not, in a matter of months, and our board cannot make any practical decision about high schools until the Eisenhower citizen's process is finished.
The charter school process is complicated and something best left for another article. In the meantime we prepare ourselves to attack the 2012/13 budget.