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Madison School District officials have begun the annual task of crafting a budget for the next school year, and once again, the news is not good.

Preliminary calculations show another round of staff cuts likely will be needed, in the range of 70 to 80 positions.

“We’ve been on a downward spiral in terms of revenue for a few years, and this year isn’t going to be any different,” said School Board President James Howard.

The reduction in employees would help close a budget gap of around $8.5 million. However, administrators say some of the staff cuts — 30 to 39 positions — would be happening anyway because enrollment is declining. The enrollment dip appears to be short-term, they say.

The overall budget picture is less dire than the $14.8 million gap the School Board confronted last year, but still painful, members said, especially coming off those deep cuts.

Because the district employs so many people — 4,087 this year — administrators hope layoffs will not be necessary and that the reductions can be achieved through attrition and moving employees among schools, said Mike Barry, assistant superintendent for business services. Last year, when the board eliminated 110 positions, only one person was laid off, he said.

Budget gaps typically arise when a district’s operating costs outstrip any increase in revenue. That’s projected to happen again, with total revenue increasing less than 1 percent for the 2016-17 school year, Barry said. Meanwhile, costs for large categories such as salaries, benefits, utilities and transportation are projected to increase cumulatively at a greater rate.

It’s early in the process, so much could change. Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham isn’t expected to unveil her formal budget proposal until April, with a board vote in June.

The district’s total budget this year is $504 million, but that includes large pools of money that effectively are off the table for cutting, like debt service and certain referendum proceeds that can’t be touched, Barry said. That leaves around $375 million — called the regular operating budget — to consider for cuts, he said.

Adding another layer to the deliberations, at a budget work session Monday, Cheatham introduced $2.1 million in new investments she wants to fund that she said align with the district’s strategic priorities, such as closing achievement gaps. She acknowledged the move seems counter-intuitive in a difficult budget year but said it is imperative that the district not lose sight of its core goals.

She described it as “repurposing” existing money and said the approach likely will be the norm going forward.

“It’s a good, positive way of working,” she said. “So rather than continually looking for more funding — kind of piling on each year, adding cost — we’re very strategically looking for the highest and best use of our dollars for the coming year.”

Among her recommendations: $289,000 for at least three more employees to focus on student academic and career planning; an additional $625,000 toward the next round of the district’s technology plan (boosting the technology budget to $3.65 million); and an additional $500,000 for major capital maintenance (upping that budget to $5 million).

Cheatham said all $2.1 million in proposed new investments will be funded by cuts to the district’s central office. That aligns with board direction.

“We’ve told her, ‘Stay away from the classroom,’ ” said board member Dean Loumos. “It’s not good to cut the central office — we’re not top-heavy there — but it’s worse and unacceptable to make cuts to the classroom.”

Cheatham has not yet revealed what cuts she would make to the central office. Board member Anna Moffit said she will need that information before feeling comfortable with the new investments.

“When you say ‘central office,’ people think of the staff in the Doyle Administration Building, but many central office staff actually spend a majority of their time in schools providing direct support to students and staff,” Moffit said.

Cheatham told board members it is important to lock in as soon as possible which strategic priority actions are the right ones to pursue this coming year.

That agitated board member TJ Mertz Monday night, who, as with Moffit, said he needs a much fuller picture of the priorities being funded and what is being cut to fund them, including how those decisions will affect school-based budget allocations. Instead, administrators are making major funding decisions with only “vague feedback” and no formal votes from board members, he said.

“I feel like you’ve marginalized the Board of Education here,” he said.

Board member Ed Hughes countered that “there’s nothing that can survive in the budget if four board members say, ‘Take it out.’ ” Board member Mary Burke said she feels she has plenty of opportunities to express her views and encouraged Mertz to “get your concerns and your items out on the table right now.”

On Saturday, board members are scheduled to meet for a retreat on strategic priorities, with budget issues expected to be part of the discussion.

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