by NATHANIEL NELSON
Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) went over budget for 2018-2019, board members learned on Thursday. Following last year’s painful budget cuts, WAPS had hoped to not only stay in the black for the year, but also add a half-percent of annual expenses to the bank. Instead, rather than growing its dwindling fund balance, it decreased for the fourth year in a row — down to just 3.98 percent of yearly expenditures, or about two weeks’ of district costs.
The financial losses were accompanied by another hit for the school district –– Sarah Slaby, WAPS finance director, announced her registration on Thursday.
According to the initial budget projection documents approved by the board in June 2018 following $1.7 million in budget cuts, WAPS’ fund balance was projected to grow from $1.62 million to $1.81 million, or 4.67-percent of annual expenditures. Instead, it fell to 3.98 percent.
Slaby explained that much of the decrease could be attributed to WAPS’ loss of students — this year, WAPS’ budget projections were off by more than 200 students. She said that the fund balance had only decreased by about .09 percent since the board’s January budget update, and the decrease could be mostly attributed to raises for the administrator union.
However, board member Karl Sonneman said that the “revisionary approach” –– comparing the budget to previous edits –– doesn’t properly show how the district’s budget is developing.
“To me this isn’t budgeting,” he said. “Budgets have to tell you what you’re planning to do and tell you how you do against that plan.”
Sonneman added that he would continue to push for a way of budgeting that continually monitors the district against its initial budget, but Slaby explained that the option is still there for people to use.
“Any time we want to compare the final results of the [previous] year, that data is available,” Slaby said. “That capability is there, it’s just a matter of knowing how you’re wanting to look at it.”
While the 2018-2019 budget showed that the district moved backward, the budget for 2019-2020 –– which was shown for the first time on Thursday –– projects that the district will be making back some ground next year, as long as everything goes according to plan.
According to Slaby, the projected fund balance for June 2020 is set at $1.93 million, up to 5.14 percent of annual expenditures. More than half of the increase stems from three “hot spot” allocations that were included in April’s budget vote, which account for roughly $200,000. It’s money meant to be used for teaching staff if needed when final enrollment numbers are in in the fall. Even if those allocations are used to add sections at the elementary, middle and high school levels, the fund balance is still expected to increase by 0.57 percent, she told the board.
The budget is based on a combination of assumptions approved by the board earlier this year, the School Board’s adopted budget reductions, and enrollment projections for next school year. Enrollment is estimated to decrease by 107 students over the summer months, Slaby said, but as long as that projection is accurate, the district will be in a good place leading into the next school year.
“As of now, projections are looking solid,” Slaby said.
The board will vote on the budget at its next meeting on June 18, ending a long and arduous budget-reduction process, which resulted in the slashing of $2.2 million from the district’s 2019-2020 budget. The cuts resulted in multiple controversial changes, including the elimination of fourth-grade orchestra, the reduction of 2.58 full-time positions from the district’s music department, the elimination of math and reading interventionists at Winona Middle School (WMS), shortened elementary art and music classes, cuts to electives and core classes at WMS and WSHS, the elimination of six educational assistants, and a combined fifth- and sixth-grade Spanish-immersion Rios class.
Amidst these changes, the district now has another project to tackle –– the search for a new finance director. Slaby, who has worked for the district since January 2002, announced that she had taken on a new position at CliftonLarsonAllen, a professional services firm headquartered in Minneapolis, Minn., and would be resigning from the district in July. Director of Human Resources Emily Solheid announced the resignation to the board, stating that it was a last-minute addition to the meeting, and detailed the process going forward.
“We will do a formal evaluation of the job description and see if there are pieces that should be changed or allocated differently,” Solheid said. Once the job description has been updated, an application process will be opened with Solheid bringing up a recommended hire later this year.
Due to the last-minute nature of the announcement, Solheid said the process would miss the board’s next meeting on June 18 and instead aim for the first meeting in July.
Slaby has served as the district’s finance director since 2014, when WAPS’ prior finance director, Dan Pyan, resigned after a four-year tenure and moved into a similar position at South Washington County Schools in Cottage Grove, Minn.
When she entered into her role, the district’s fund balance sat at $5.78 million, or 14.9 percent of WAPS’ annual expenditures. In May 2017, the balance took its largest hit when Slaby told the School Board that it needed to use $1.4 million to pay for a deficit in the district’s health and safety fund. Due to accounting errors, WAPS never levied for some of its health and safety projects over several decades, and the state required that the district cover the deficit by June 2019.
Slaby’s resignation will go into effect on July 5, while the 2020 budget is expected to be approved at the board’s June 18 meeting.