Brookings-Harbor school district budget controversial

June 07, 2007 11:00 pm

By Carissa Wolf

Wescom News Service

BROOKINGS – The Brookings-Harbor School District budget committee has approved a controversial spending plan that eliminates 10 jobs and several school days The budget now goes to the school board for final approval.

The committee late last week approved a plan that closely matches an earlier proposal that drew criticism for its cutbacks and prompted students to protest the proposed layoff of several favorite teachers.

"It was a painful deliberation for all," Michael Adams, a budget committee member, said this week. "When you get into dealing with personnel issues, it always gets difficult."

The Brookings-Harbor School Board must also approve the budget before it's finally adopted. Board members are slated to make that decision at a June 20 meeting.

"We're going to work really, really hard to work with what we have and still provide a quality education," said District Superintendent Chris Nichols of the budget the school board finally approves.

The 2007-08 proposed budget that called for the elimination of 10 staff positions had some teachers, who said they felt left out of the process, pledging to reconsider their own contracts to try and save the jobs of their colleagues.

"People are feeling like they're not being asked their opinion," said budget committee member Jamie Ryan at the May 10 budget meeting.

The budget committee heeded teachers' concerns and gave them and school officials their support to go back to the drawing board to try to squeeze more instruction and contingency-fund dollars out of the proposed $18.5 million budget.

But a tight timetable forced teachers to forgo contract renegotiations and had some budget committee members reluctantly approving only a slightly revamped budget that dug a little deeper into instruction costs.

Tightening the belt

Eight classified jobs and two counseling positions are still slated for elimination and the future of all-day kindergarten remains in question.

"We knew that we would just have to bite the bullet to get over this hump," said Terri Poponi, one of the few teachers to show up at Friday's budget meeting. Teachers and aides packed previous budget meetings.

Since teachers didn't re-negotiate their contracts, as some had hoped, the proposed budget revisions were limited, cutting back on the amount of time the budget committee planned to discuss any alterations. They had intended to deliberate the changes on Friday, then vote on the proposal Monday. But the short list of changes allowed the committee to discuss and approve the budget on Friday.

"It just showed us that we need to form our own committee," Poponi said about teachers' need to be involved in budgeting early in the process. "I guess this is the beginning of something new."

One of the biggest changes included boosting the ending balance, or contingency fund, from a proposed 2 percent of the budget to nearly 5 percent, at a cost of $348,000. The increase came at the expense of school supplies, new textbooks, curriculum and staff development and the number of school days.

"Three budget shortfall days is not a good idea," Ryan said on Tuesday.

She also worries about the district's all-day kindergarten program. At this time, the district does not know exactly how many children will show up for kindergarten in the fall, and officials are uncertain if the district will be able to afford the staffing necessary to keep the kindergarten classes open all day.

Ryan suggested that the district look at other cuts, such as not rehiring a special education director. But Ryan said that she was often in the minority.

"All the numbers tell us loud and clear that (all-day kindergarten) really pays off," she said, noting that intensive early education could decrease the future number of special education students.

Keeping quality education

Some budget committee and school board members recommended in May that they use any reappropriated funds to boost the ending fund balance, which works as a sort of budget safety net in the case of spending emergencies.

"If we run out of money, what are we going to do and who's going to go to the bank?" School Board Chairman Larry Anderson said in May.

In Superintendent Chris Nichols' 2007-08 budget message, she noted that the original proposal presented to the budget committee in April had no budget shortfall days.

"Our commitment to the staff and the community was to build back those days, and the budget that is presented here does NOT reflect any budget shortfall days," Nichols wrote. "What it does reflect is a genuine effort on the part of the district to offer the best possible budget within our financial constraints."

But Nichols said that the district's tradition of excellence in teaching and a dedicated staff will help negate the tight budget. Nichols said that a good education really depends on having outstanding educators.

"And that's why I believe we can still provide a quality education," Nichols said.