Winona Area Public Schools will, during this school year, spend about $1.1 million in reserve funds on operations—money spent over and above the revenue the district will bring in, according to financial data reviewed by the school board's finance committee Monday.
That trend of spending down district savings is about to end, with school leaders eyeing at least $500,000 in projected budget cuts that must be made annually for the next three years. Finding that money within a budget that district officials said is already strapped won’t be an easy task, they agreed. But the committee worked through a plan on Monday that would put the budget cutting in the hands of a committee which will be charged with determining which programs to cut, and which to spare.
Whether that committee will include an elected school board member is a question that finance committee members discussed, and that will likely be decided by the full board in October. The administrators proposed criteria that should be considered when deciding budget cuts, guidelines on which the full school board will vote in the coming weeks.
Elected board member on committee?
The proposed budget committee may include one board member, the superintendent, the director of fiscal affairs, director of buildings and grounds, high school principal, middle school principal, one elementary school principal, and the community services director, who would act as a facilitator for the group. This list of committee members was recommended by director of fiscal affairs Dan Pyan as a group that could examine potential budget cuts to meet the $500,000 reduction goal, then bring a recommendation to the full school board in January. This budget committee would be a new, different committee from the board's finance committee, that addressed the budget cut process on Monday. The finance committee includes three board members -- Steve Schild, Jay Kohner, and board chair Greg Fellman. The proposed budget committee would exclusively propose budget cuts, and has not yet been discussed by the full board.
On Monday, Fellman wondered whether a new budget committee should even have an elected school board member at the table. Schild echoed the question, suggesting that the committee might work better if it were completely staff driven, and without any “agenda” that a board member might bring.
Pyan, who said he had used a similar committee process when making cuts in other districts, said the question of board involvement with the budget cut process depended on how the board operates. He added that he felt the committee should include a board member “so that the public has a voice.”
Superintendent Scott Hannon agreed, but said it was important that any board member appointed to the committee leave “agendas” at the door. Sometimes, he said, a board member will report many calls from constituents in favor of an issue, when really it is just one phone call expressing public support on a question. When working to find reductions in the budget, he said, it’s important that no member of the committee bring such an agenda to the table.
Is it possible to have a board member without an agenda, asked Schild. He said sometimes the seven board members agree and sometimes they don’t, adding that he understood the desire for public representation, but wanted to ensure that the work to trim the budget was not influenced by any individual on the board.
Pyan said that was an ethical and moral issue for board members in many cases, and said that board members “know what they’re doing,” when it comes to the difference between committee work and formal board votes. The committee, he said, will be pragmatic and hard working, and there won’t likely be room in those discussions for individual platforms or agendas.
Budget cut guidelines
Pyan presented a list of potential guidelines that could be used by the committee to find appropriate budget cuts. The list included:
• Rely on data, research, and factual information as a basis for making decisions;
• Attract, retain, and improve high quality staff instruction;
• Support educational opportunities focused on high achievement, 21st century skills, and enhancing revenue;
• Learning and work are enhanced through efficient use of facilities and operations; and
• Budget decisions will be conducted in a deliberate, participatory and transparent manner.
Finance committee members discussed the guidelines briefly on Monday that will eventually be considered for adoption by the full board in October. Several noted that while making “data driven” decisions might sound easy, it won’t be. Choosing between good programs when making cuts, said Fellman, will be difficult when data shows they’re all beneficial for students. “They’re all great for kids, but how do you fund them all, how do you make a decision about which one goes?” he asked.
Schild agreed, and said that good programs and difficult decisions will have intelligent arguments on either side.
Pyan noted that the guidelines were rather broad, but said specific criteria for cuts can present a catch-22 in some cases. “If they get too narrow, you could really tie yourself down,” he said. One example given was a guideline to keep cuts as far from classroom activity as possible. In that case, said Pyan, a board could make lots of cuts to functions like administration, but may find itself without someone to file taxes or pay the bills. Sometimes, broad principles can keep budget cut discussions focused while leaving options open for potential reductions, he said.