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Paynesville Press - June 20, 2001

State impasse stalls school budget proposals

By Michael Jacobson

The school district needs to pass a budget for the 2001-02 school year, which starts July 1, but doing so may prove difficult if an agreement isn't reached by the state.

Superintendent Howard Caldwell presented a proposed budget for the next school year to the school board for review on Tuesday, June 12. The stalemate in St. Paul led him to use a conservative estimate on revenues for the coming year because next year's school funding is not known.

"By the next (school board) meeting, we need to have some sort of approval - whether the Legislature has decided or not - on some sort of preliminary budget," Caldwell said.

The budget could be revised as better information is known.

With education funding from the state in limbo, Caldwell kept the district's expected revenue at their present levels. He also omitted one-time funds for the current year that may not be renewed for next year.

Caldwell projected the revenues as if the state provided no increase in funds whatsoever. "That's why it's so bleak," he said. "Hopefully (state aid) will be better than that."

Expenditures for next year are proposed to be $560,000 less than this year, the result of more than a half million dollars in budget reductions this winter. Caldwell did include some spending increases, like an estimated three percent increase in wages. New contracts with the teaching staff have yet to be settled for the next two years.

The proposed budget has a general fund deficit of nearly $550,000.

Caldwell suggested more budget reductions or an excess levy as options for remedying this deficit. He said he hasn't suggested a levy to the board so far because the Legislature has talked about changing the requirements. One proposal would allow school boards to raise the levy without a referendum.

A levy of $200,000-$300,000 would probably be needed to get the district back in balance, and further program reductions might still be needed, said Caldwell.

The district has an excess levy of $315 per pupil unit, with took effect in 1999 and lasts until 2008. Last year, this levy raised $429,000 for our school district, according to Bob Porter in the Department of Children, Families, and Learning's program finance division.

Currently, the state pays for 62 percent of the excess levy, with local taxpayers picking up 38 percent. State aid, though, will be reduced in coming years due to the rising local tax capacity (property values are rising as enrollment declines).

Using the CFL estimate of 1363 pupil units in the Paynesville schools next year, the excess levy would need to be raised by almost $150 per pupil to raise $200,000 for the school or by $220 per pupil to raise $300,000. Currently, the state only provides equalization aid for levies up to $415 per pupil unit, meaning without a change any raise more than $100 would require a greater local share of payment.

Board member Deb Glenz pointed out that the district's expected revenue from the federal government for special education was $545,000, while the district's expected expenses were over $1 million.

Board chairman Pat Flanders blamed the federal government for mandating a program, but not financing it. "There's a half million dollars," he said of the deficit in special education funding. "If they would cover their program, we wouldn't look like fools."

The good news is the school's education district has 23 percent more funds for special education, but this money can only be used for new programs, not for existing ones.

"Why don't we take care of the programs we have first?" asked Flanders.

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