Jul 29, 2014

State Budget Uncertainties Nearly Kill Two School Programs

Two directors opposed advanced approval of district budget without state plan.

State Budget Uncertainties Nearly Kill Two School Programs

State budget uncertainties heated up a routine school board budget action and, with the absence of one director, threatened to kill two previously agreed-upon programs.

Directors were united in March when they gave preliminary approval to what they praised as an $81 million  But when they went to give final approval Thursday, Director Ellen Dustman and Director Wendy Donovan, the board treasurer, balked at approving the budget so far before the June 30 deadline without knowing how much state money schools will get.

“I’m not confident it’s a good idea to pass a budget right now when we have until June 30,” Dustman said.

State funding accounts for about two-thirds of the district’s revenues.

A couple of directors would normally not be enough to derail a course of action. But the board had split in March over two programs that had to be voted on separate from the overall budget: Elementary AVID and the One Voice Coalition, the district’s drug-prevention effort. At the same time, Director Susan Wootten had stepped out of the meeting to attend her daughters’ last orchestra concert.

The seven-member board appeared headed for a 3-3 tie that would have scrapped the programs.

In the end, Wooten returned just in time to cast the deciding vote in their favor, but it was a close enough call that less thorough debate on the overall budget would have been enough to move the vote ahead of her arrival.

As it was, the board voted without Wooten on the overall budget and four of the seven individual items.

Managing uncertainty

The ups and downs made good drama for the audience. But the district doesn’t need any drama at this point. Although school districts must set their budgets by June 30, DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and the Republican-controlled Legislature are at an impasse on a state budget plan—making planning hard for school districts, cities, counties and others that receive state money.

John Toop, the district’s director of business services, launched an assault on the recurring inability of the governor and legislature to compromise—whoever happens to be in control during a particular session.

He compared the current situation to the movie Groundhog Day. Just like Bill Murray’s character had to relive the same day over and over again, school districts face the same uncertainty from session to session.

“Same dance. Different dancers. Different roles. Same results thus far for this groundhog session,” Toop said.

Delayed action?

Dustman and Donovan argue that the district could mitigate this problem somewhat if it would just delay final approval. Hopkins is one of the first districts to approve a budget—with Thursday’s stamp coming more than a month before the deadline and with a few days still left in the legislative session.

Many doubt that the state will agree on a final budget plan by the end of session Monday. But even if a special session ensues, Dayton and the Legislature have through June 30 to reach agreement without a government shutdown.

The school board, though, does not have any formal meetings scheduled for June and has only one work session—although it could call an unplanned meeting with sufficient notice.

Dustman and Donovan were particularly critical of approving the programs voted on individually because the district’s savings pay for these so-called “one-time expenditures.”

“It’s hard to spend money when you don’t know,” Donovan said. “I don’t spend my savings when I don’t know what’s coming in.”

Director Betsy Scheurer countered that staff and directors had spent “countless hours” preparing a conservative budget. The budget pencils in:

  • A 3 percent, $1.3 million cut in state money,
  • Increased delays in state payments that add $245,000 in borrowing costs and
  • A 2 percent salary increase and 8 percent fringe benefit increase for employees.

With the House bill increasing per pupil funding by $20, those could be overly pessimistic predictions.

Scheurer and others also emphasized that Superintendent John Schultz is required to bring the budget back to the board if state cuts are deeper than anticipated.

Said Director Warren Goodroad: “I think from a process standpoint, we’re ready to pass this budget—recognizing that we’re probably going to come back and modify this budget a few times.” 

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