Editor's Note: This story was edited to reflect the correct spelling of Matt Fischer's name.
Teachers, administrators, and community members met Thursday to look over the school district’s finances and discuss the upcoming FY 2014 budget.
Currently, the district is running a budget deficit of more than $2.7 million and Dave Jones, assistant superintendent, said the shortfall usually came out of the general fund.
“The revenue streams that were involved in our fund balance increasing have gone away,” he said. “Last year our fund balance decreased. It’s budgeted to decrease this year and I don’t see, maybe I’m a pessimist, I don’t see the necessary new revenue coming down the road.”
To illustrate exactly what a $2.7 million reduction would look like, Jones told the group that the average teacher salary and benefits is $85,000 which means 32.5 positions would have to be eliminated.
“At the time I gave that example, I told them ‘look if we had to make those cuts it wouldn’t just be teachers, it would be administrators it would be classified,” Jones said. “What I’m trying to get across to people is, $2.7 million you’ve got to do a lot. To run a $2.7 million dollar deficit, that’s a dangerous thing to do for very long.”
Jones said the lack of revenue streams into the general fund meant that eventually the district would hit a cliff when it could not longer run budget deficits.
“If you hit that cliff it costs you 32.5 teachers. Boom. They’ve got to go, there’s not money for them. So take a look across this district and eliminate 32.5 positions,” he said. “We’re going to get people excited.”
The group discussed several alternatives, such as four-day school week, or higher teacher to student ratios.
“What happens is the instructional achievement that we have and doing well on in this district goes to hell,” Jones said.
Kelci Benson, student representative and a junior at Soldotna High School said she was surprised by how much money the district spent on teachers.
According to the school district’s expenditure list, certified and non-certified salaries and employee benefits make up more than 80% of its yearly expenditures.
“We spend a lot of money on our teachers … which I guess is a good thing because they’re here to educate us,” Benson said.
Jones said, after the meeting, there were other ways to balance the district’s budget that did not involve cutting staff.
Finding other sources of revenue for the school’s fund balance and looking at other was to cut costs were options, he said.
The committee discussed ways to get more community involvement in the budget process, as the meetings are not generally well attended.
Benson said she wished more people would attend the meetings so there would be no surprises when the district had to cut positions to balance its budget.
“Some people need to take budget cuts and they need to understand that… it’s for the students…and maybe not be so upset when they get cut,” Benson said.
Matt Fischer, a teacher at Soldotna Middle School and a member of the teacher’s union bargaining team, said he heard the same message of budgetary woe from the district for several years.
“If you ask people in the community, they’re frustrated because every year it’s the same message no matter what,” Fisher said after the meeting. “They’ve just checked out of the process because it’s always the same message.”
Fisher said he had been teaching in the district for 10 years and was on his second year of participating in the budget development process.
He does not think the district is financially irresponsible.
“I think we’re frugal. I just hate this process every year how they say ‘the sky is falling’ and the community totally checks out because they’ve heard it so often,” he said. “When we do have a fiscal emergency nobody is going to respond.”
Jones will present the preliminary feedback he received to the school board during its Monday meeting.
The board will also discuss its preliminary enrollment results from October’s 20-day certified enrollment count which, according to data Jones presented during the budget meeting, is 20 students higher than the FY 13 projected enrollment.
The school board will also hear the results of the Department of Health and Social Services district-wide obesity study at 3:45 p.m. during a public meeting at the Borough Administration Building at 148 N. Binkley in Soldotna.
Rashah McChesney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.