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Board wants to 'participate' in school budget cuts (10/14/2012)
By Sarah Squires

Winona Area School Board members are expected to continue a discussion Tuesday night over how $500,000 in reductions will be made for the 2013-14 budget. Because no new information was included in the meeting agenda packet, it is unclear whether the board will finally be given budget data members have repeatedly requested, and not received.

Board member Mohamed Elhindi first requested that a discussion about the budget cutting process be included on a board agenda in July. The issue was not, however, taken up by the full board. Instead, a group of administrators met in August and discussed how the process should move ahead; then the district finance committee fielded questions at a meeting in September.

The finance committee includes three school board members -- Greg Fellman, Steve Schild and Jay Kohner. During that September finance committee meeting, the group was presented with an administrative recommendation for the budget reduction process: a committee of administrators should determine recommended cuts using a list of “guiding principles,” also recommended by administrators and staff members. During the finance committee meeting, administrators and two board members, Schild and Fellman, questioned if the committee charged with identifying $500,000 in financial cuts should include an elected school board member. They argued that a board member would bring an “agenda” to the table that could curb staff members’ candid financial discussions.

After the Winona Post published a story about the September finance committee meeting, several school board members requested that the full board be allowed to craft a process for making those budget cuts. Rather than allowing the finance committee, which includes only some elected school board members, to determine the process, several board members said that the full board should decide how the reductions should be made. Elected leaders should be the ones who develop “guiding principles” for the cuts—principles that highlight what the board would like to see preserved when the budget is trimmed. Elhindi asked that administrators bring the board financial data that showed, in percentages, where the district is spending its funds, including administration, instructional costs, activities and athletics. Several members also asked about the budget reduction timeline that was presented to the finance committee, requesting that the full board receive the timeline and all data that was given to the finance committee.

However, when the school board met again on October 4, the budget figures and timeline were not provided to board members. Instead, the board was given the list of “guiding principles” that had been recommended by administrators. While several board members, again, asked that more information be included at the upcoming October 16 meeting, the board’s agenda packet for that meeting does not contain any of the requested data.

Oct. 4 budget discussion

The school board discussed the “guiding principles” recommended by administrators for the budget reduction process at the October 4 meeting: rely on data, research, and factual information as a basis for making decisions; attract, retain and improve high quality staff and instruction [sic]; 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.

Board member Ben Baratto reminded administrators of Elhindi’s request for budget data on areas of spending, which he said would be valuable for the board to examine. Of the guiding principles given to the board, he said, “Sometimes as educators we’re all too prone to put something in flowery language that I’m not so sure means so much. My guiding principles are going to be very simple: they’re going to be [centered] around equity and fairness. I don’t want some small sports program to go just because there [are] 15 kids [involved]. To those 15 kids, that’s very important.”

Referencing the Winona Post article on the September finance committee meeting, Baratto recalled something an administrator was quoted as saying. District finance officer Dan Pyan said at that meeting that some might want a guiding principle that would concentrate cuts outside of classroom and instructional spending. But, said Pyan, that could mean that other areas, such as financial reporting requirements, are neglected. “I’m not so worried about reports,” said Baratto. “I ran on the premise that I would do everything I could on this board to make sure that the students of [District] 861 get a good education.”

Schild said he liked the recommended guiding principles. “I don’t have a problem with these at all, and part of the reason for that is I don’t know how anybody could come up with any set of principles or rules or whatever you want to say that would anticipate every situation and would address every concern everyone has,” he said. “I’m fine with these; I like the fact that they were developed in a participatory way.”

“Can we talk about participatory?” asked Elhindi.

Schild clarified his remark, stating the principles presented were derived from conversations with administrators and those in charge of curriculum and instruction. “I’d be happy to look at something else but I don’t know how good a use it would be of anybody’s time to try to come up with a perfect set of principles or whatever because I don’t know if we’d find one,” added Schild.

It isn’t that I have a problem with this set of principles, said Baratto, “I’m just saying that I don’t want a [budget reduction] proposal brought before this board that hits just one area, whether that be classrooms or sports.” The cuts should be spread out, and everyone should have to suffer a little, he continued.

Superintendent Scott Hannon said he has been involved in previous budget reduction processes, and equity and fairness were among his goals, too. He said he didn’t want a situation in which the board asked, for example, for each department or area to absorb a 10 percent cut. It wouldn’t be fair for some, he added, since some departments, such as teaching staff, are so large, and smaller ones, such as administration, would feel a 10 percent cut much deeper. “We’re looking at not to get locked into something where you say, ‘Well, that classroom size has to be exactly this number and that percentage has to be exactly that number,'” he said. As far as financial data requested by the board, Hannon said the board would be getting those numbers. You could say too much is spent here or there, he said, but “we’re living it... I think we’ll make fair and equitable decisions.”

“This is fine and dandy, but let’s not forget where the real action takes place, and that’s with the students,” Baratto interjected.

Elhindi agreed, adding that he felt the guiding principles for budget reductions need to show clearly the board’s priorities were, and what it wants to preserve.

Fellman, whose term ends in December, warned newer board members how difficult the budget reductions will be. “It doesn’t matter the size of the cuts sometimes,” he said, adding that board members’ phones will be ringing with questions and concerns from community members. Board member Gary Shurson, who will also leave the seat in December, said in the past much larger cuts have been made to district programs and spending. “Every year you cut, there’s just less and less to cut. It’s going to be a difficult process. You can have all the guiding principles you want; all the seats [in the board meeting audience] are going to be full. Everything you cut, there will be a group to defend it,” said Shurson.

Kohner asked if the board would be briefed on the information given to the finance committee about the recommended budget reduction process, including the timeline and the proposed staff committee charged with identifying cuts.

Hannon said that information would be brought to the full board soon, adding that the plan was for the committee to bring recommendations to the board on where the cuts should be made. We want it to be a deliberate, participatory process, he said. “When we get to an area we want to cut, we’re going to bring those people in who are involved with that and say, ‘Can we do that?’” added Hannon.

“It’s really the superintendent’s process, how he wants to present these to the board,” said Pyan of how the reductions would be formulated.

At the end of the October 4 discussion, Elhindi asked that the data from the finance committee be shared with the full board in a timely manner. He recalled a lengthy discussion by the board several months back in which it was made clear that the full board wanted to ensure it knew what was going on at the committee level. “If [information] went to the committee, I would really appreciate getting it in a timely manner,” said Elhindi. “I think it would be really nice to let us in, too.”

Timeline

The timeline presented to the finance committee includes the following milestones in the budget reduction process: mid-October - board adopts budget reduction guiding principles; late October - audit determines fund balances and new projections made; mid-November - first budget committee meeting (a new committee is proposed for budget cuts, NOT the finance committee); December - two budget committee meetings; January - budget committee makes recommendations to the school board; February - school board adopts reductions; March - work on preliminary budget; June - school board approves budget. 

 

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