Schools Spend Their State Surplus Money. Or Not.

Dec 29, 2011

 

Boise Idaho – Idaho’s superintendent of education wants to end the two year trend of cutting money for schools. That’s why Tom Luna will ask the legislature to increase education funding next year by more than five percent.

Tom Luna “And I’m confident that because of the very difficult choices and decisions the legislature made in the past that there will be more money going to our K twelve schools this coming year.”

Luna says his confidence comes from conversations with lawmakers and the governor. Governor Butch Otter says he’ll encourage lawmakers to budget conservatively again, but he recently told our State Impact Idaho team, education funding would be a top priority. For evidence he points to the budget surplus the state had this summer.

Butch Otter “About two thirds, maybe three fourths of the money from our surplus went to back fill those areas that we had to cut in education.”

That surplus put 60 million dollars back into the hands of school districts. Back in September we told you about different ways districts were spending that money. This week we’re revisiting some of our best stories from 2011 including Adam Cotterell’s story about how districts reacted to the unexpected money at the start of the school year.

It’s hamburgers and tater tots for lunch at Central Canyon Elementary in Caldwell. First and second graders carry trays and negotiate for seats. Principal Lisa Colon towers over them at 6 feet tall. She says her school is K through fifth, has 685 students, and 25 teachers.

Lisa Colon “We have 80% free and reduced, sometimes the kids, um, the only times they get to eat is when they come here to eat during the week.”

Colon and her teachers work the lunch room and the playground because last year the district fired the part timers who had that job. Just before school started the Valley View District board said schools could hire those people back. That’s thanks to their share of the state’s surplus money. Colon hasn’t hired a lunchroom monitor yet.

Lisa Colon “Soon, very soon (laughter.)”

She says when her teachers work through lunch that means they often don’t get a “real” break all day. First grade teacher Sarah Christenson says she’s glad she won’t have to work the lunchroom.

Sarah Christenson “Not being able to have a lunch duty, I can start pulling individual students for individual needs, whether it be reading or math. So, you know it’s making sure the students are successful. “

Adam Cotterell “So you’re not using that lunch period you don’t have to be in here, you’re not putting your feet up on your desk?”

Sarah Christenson “No. No, no, no.”

Hiring lunchroom and playground staff will cost the district about 50 thousand dollars for all its schools. That’s a small part of its surplus money. Valley View is a large district for Idaho. It got a little over a million dollars. Some of that money will go to supplies, but the biggest chunk goes to teachers. Superintendent Pat Charlton says the district had scheduled ten furlough days for employees this year.

Pat Charlton “Each of those days is a day when teachers wouldn’t get paid. So some people took a substantial hit to their family incomes.”

 

Now Valley View teachers will only have two furlough days this year.

There are many strategies on how to spend the surplus. Boise’s school district is using its five million dollars to allow it to ask for a smaller amount on its levy vote next spring. Idaho’s largest district – Meridian – hasn’t decided what to do with its seven million dollar share. They expect to decide by early October.

Charlton says the Valley View board based its decision on what to do with the surplus on one idea. They’re counting on the economy to improve and that the state will give them more money next year.

Pat Charlton “I’m hoping that’s not overly optimistic. You know in general educators tend to be positive people who accentuate the positive. So we are hopeful things will get better.”

Other superintendents aren’t as optimistic when it comes to the economy.

John McFarlane “We don’t know when we’re going to be out of this. We have to build as much cushion as we possibly can. You know, a couple of years ago they were thinking this year would be our way out. Our economy’s a long way from recovering.”

 

John McFarlane is superintendent in Idaho City. He plans to hang on to his share of the state surplus money.

John McFarlane “Particularly in small districts where our margins are very narrow, we’ve got to try to carry over as many funds as we possibly can.”

Idaho City’s Basin School District is small… one school and about 400 students. McFarlane is superintendent and principal. He also teaches science. Basin got about 100 thousand dollars in surplus money. McFarlane will spend some of that on his teacher’s health plan. He says the district would not have met its obligation otherwise. The rest of it goes into the contingency fund. McFarlane says that fund is empty after three years of budget cuts.

John McFarlane “It’s just a cushion. It’s like your emergency fund that allows you to ride out different unforeseen circumstances.”

McFarlane walks the hall in shorts and a T-shirt joking with kids as they register just before the start of classes. He says it’s not that he doesn’t want to spend that surplus money.

John McFarlane “We’ve gone from 74 employees three years ago to 53 employees now. If we cut any deeper we’re cutting whole programs.”

McFarlane says he can’t justify hiring people back with the extra money. He thinks he would have to lay them off again next year.

John McFarlane “We really have a family culture and so you lay some body off, you see them in town, you see them on the street, they’re still in your neighborhood. It’s very difficult to do.”

The decision to save the surplus money is not unique to Idaho City. Several other districts are doing the same thing. Kuna has ten times the students as Idaho City and received ten times the share of the surplus. Superintendent Jay Hummel says Kuna has two elementary schools that need major upgrades or replacement. But they’re saving their million dollar surplus check.

Jay Hummel “We’ve cut back this year, and um we believe we need to hang onto that money for problems in the future that are worse than today.”

Those future problems Hummel sees are not just from a struggling economy. He thinks the new Students Come First laws will put an additional burden on his district with mandates to buy new high tech equipment.

Jay Hummel “We see the saving of that money, primarily as a way to slow how many teachers we may have to lose in future years as we’re forced to bring on the technology.”

That wasn’t the only complaint leveled at the state from superintendents. Many said they were glad to have the surplus money but they wish the legislature had not budgeted so strictly in the first place. The state’s chief financial manager, Wayne Hammon responds that law makers will likely set the budget below projections again in 2012 because the chance of an end of year surplus is better than the threat of mid-year holdbacks.

Since we first aired this story the Meridian school district did decide what to do with its share of the surplus. The state’s largest district put all seven point one million dollars into its reserve fund.