Blaine schools facing difficult financial straits

Published on Wed, Sep 28, 2011 by Pat Grubb

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The first meeting of the Blaine school board began with a work session on a subject that is near, but perhaps not dear to board members’ hearts: money troubles.

Speaking to a room filled with board members, school principals, program directors and other officials, school superintendent Ron Spanjer painted a gloomy picture of ongoing financial restraints and diminished state revenues. The audience comprised what the district refers to as the District Leadership Team.

“Even with an increase in the school levy, we’re in serious difficulty just to maintain current school programs,” Spanjer said.

The board is considering increasing the school levy rate beginning in 2013 from $1.45 to $1.62 per $1,000 assessed value, as allowed by state law. If implemented, owners of a house and property valued at $200,000 would see their annual school levy increase from $290 to $324, a $34 increase. The legislature gave the state’s school district to increase the levy in recognition that less funds were available from the state.

Blaine school district business manager Amber Porter followed Spanjer with even gloomier fore tidings. “We are currently spending more than what we’re taking in,” she said, “and there are no guaranties that our current revenue will continue.”

Referring to the cuts that the district has implemented in the past four years, Spanjer described them as “unprecedented reductions” involving budget decisions made during the budgeting process and extending into mid-year budget cuts.

“We won’t know until next May or June what the state intends to do,” he said, despite the fact “the district is responsible for paying state salary increases even it the state does not maintain funding.”

The school board directors have established 5 percent as the minimum threshold for an ending fund balance, a level at which the district currently hovers. Last year the district was able to dip into the fund but that option is not available for this budget year.

The second area of concern facing the school district is the need to upgrade facilities. A $33 million capital facilities bond issue last April received 59.2 percent yes votes, just 0.2 percent shy of the level needed for passage.  The district is now considering putting a $3 million bond issue on the same February special election ballot that the maintenance and operations levy will be voted on. By doing so, it risks frightening a public who are facing an uncertain economy. However, placing the measure on the same ballot in February would save $70,000 in election costs.

“The needs aren’t going away,” Spanjer told the board, citing reasons why the issue should be presented to the voters.

Team members followed Spanjer to present the case for the bond according to their area of expertise. Tim Connell, technology guru, described the need for computer upgrades, telling the board that most teachers have laptops bought in 2005. “Most of you know that laptops begin to fail in the third year,” he said, adding classroom computers were largely bought in 1999.

“Teacher computers are where we’ll have problems and fairly soon,” he concluded. Proceeds of the bond will allow for the upgrade of the science facilities as well as upgrades of instructional space for special education students.

“I think it’s been made clear to us over the past two months that in this economy people don’t want to see our money being spent on athletics,” Spanjer said. The previous bond issue had called for major upgrades to athletic facilities.

Commenting on the technology presentation, board chair Charles Gibson said, “We need to have this equipment for our students. Otherwise, we’re not preparing them for today’s world.”

The board will take action on the two financial measures at their regular October 24 meeting.