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Paynesville Press - January 16, 2002

Possible school cuts due in a week

By Michael Jacobson

School administration should have the list of possible budget cuts for the 2002-03 school year ready to present to the school board at its next meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 22.

The potential list of cuts, which administrators have been preparing since December, will be made public then, almost two weeks before a public hearing on the cuts, which will be held on Monday, Feb. 4.

The school board still has not set an amount for reduction. Last week, superintendent Howard Caldwell recommended cutting at least $500,000 from the 2002-03 budget. "Anything less than that is not going to be enough, in my opinion," he told the board at their meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 8.

The board is also expected to set the amount to cut at its next meeting on Jan. 22. Caldwell also needs to know the amount so he can include it in the district's statutory operating debt plan that must be submitted to the state by the end of January.

Board chair Pat Flanders emphasized the need to set a dollar amount before the hearing and before a decision about the cuts is made. Like last year, the board can then prioritize the possible items for reduction and then cut all those to that dollar amount. Without a set figure, board members will be tempted to stop short of the necessary amount, said Flanders.

After the public hearing, the board members will rank the cuts individually, and these rankings will be tabulated for the final decision on the budget cuts to be made on Tuesday, Feb. 26.

Since salaries are a majority of the general fund expenditures, the list of potential cuts includes staffing reductions. "Class sizes will increase with this proposal that we bring to you," Caldwell told the board.

While other areas will be recommended, larger class sizes is the biggest thing, he added. The district is also working with its transportation contractor on ways to reduce the district's busing expense.

Caldwell also proposed having another levy referendum later in the spring, possibly in May. Without additional dollars, continual budget cuts will be needed in the coming years, Caldwell told the board.

The district will also have to look at future cuts to offset the impact of declining enrollment.

Any money from a levy cannot be included in the statutory operating debt plan until the referendum passes, but the plan could be altered should that happen.

As of June 30, 2001, the district's general fund was $57,000 in the black. The district has a $300,000 balance in reserved funds (which can only be spent in designated ways) but a $243,000 deficit in unreserved dollars, which is why the district is in statutory operating debt.

Caldwell told the board that his goal was to have one month's operating expenses on hand. Getting the general fund balance back to there might take six years without a levy, he said.

Either a percent of the budget, perhaps a month's expenditures, could be used as a goal for a general fund balance in the future, Caldwell suggested. Using that as a benchmark would indicate the need to do budget reductions more quickly.

The board made establishing a policy for making budget cuts, taking enrollment in account, as one of its goals for the year.

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