Duluth School Board approves prelim budget

By Adelle Whitefoot

The Duluth School Board approved a preliminary budget by a vote of 5-2 Tuesday with $3.9 million in cuts, with members Nora Sandstad and Sally Trnka voting against the measure.

The board received news last week that enrollment numbers are higher than expected, which allowed for adjustments of funding from the state. According to the district’s director of business services and CFO Doug Hasler, the enrollment is 100 students more than previously estimated, and expenditures are less than estimated, which has essentially erased this year’s debt that would have been carried into next school year. This year the district will end $200,000 in the black.

The 2018-2019 initial budget deficit is more than $1.6 million with $2.5 million in new investments, bringing the total shortfall to $4.1 million. Reductions made in the preliminary budget include professional development, staff in special services, Americorps positions, test proctors, the mentoring budget, elimination of open positions in maintenance, gas and fuel costs for transportation, overtime for drivers, delaying the purchase of a van for the district and delaying the addition of telepresence.

The district is also saving money by adding a fee for trip coordination, through staff members retiring and through insurance costs being below their projection.

The $2.5 million in new investments include $38,400 in curriculum support, $31,637 in general fund support and $2.4 million in reallocation of compensatory education funds. The board voted in late January to allow each school to keep 80 percent of the compensatory education funds it generates with 20 percent to be distributed district-wide. Before, schools kept 50 percent generated and 50 percent was used district-wide to lower class sizes.

Each school generates a certain amount of compensatory education funds based on its population of students taking part in the federal free and reduced-price lunch program.

The preliminary budget assigns 70 percent of the funds as discretionary, meaning each individual school can use the funds as they see fit within the guidelines of the state statute, with 10 percent being allocated to full-time employees. Though, due to the reallocation of funds some schools will have quite a bit less money to work with.

“(The budget) will continue to be developed. As we get closer to the end of the year our revenues and expenditures become more and more clear for this year and next year,” said superintendent Bill Gronseth. “A piece that we would not be changing on (the preliminary budget) is the ratio piece because once we start down the road of figuring out that staffing, if we make a change to that, we have to start over again. So we would really hope to that as a constant and use other areas as variables.”

Class-size ratio was the item most discussed by the board. The approved preliminary budget will increase the class-size ratio by one at all levels except for kindergarten, which will remain unchanged. But each building may choose use the discretionary funds to add more teachers, keeping student-teacher ratios lower.

The board was given two budget options to choose from: Option A.2 and Option C. The board approved the preliminary budget with an amendment — which passed 4-3 with Sandstad, Trnka and Jill Lofald voting against it — to choose Option C. Option A.2 would have increased the class-size ratio by 1.5, but made all 80 percent of the compensatory education funds discretionary.

Board member Josh Gorham said he was in favor of Option C because it has less of an impact on class sizes and gives schools more freedom to choose how they use their discretionary compensatory education funds by not having to worry about using it on class size — some schools wouldn’t have that option as they wouldn’t receive enough to hire even one teacher.

Board member Alanna Oswald agreed with Gorham.

“The comment keeps being made that all the buildings can use their discretionary funds to lower their class sizes, if they so choose, but we must remember that not every school is receiving a large amount of funds with the reallocation and they won’t be able to focus money entirely on how they are going to achieve helping their basic skill learners,” Oswald said. “If they use it all up in an extra 0.4 (full-time employee) to create that one more class, then they don’t have anything to use to help their basic learners, and that is a dilemma that I cannot accept.”

Sandstad was against Option C because it didn’t equally allocate general funds to all the buildings.

“What this comes down to for me is, if you take out the compensatory education funds from the equation, and focusing just on remaining general education funds, Option A.2 will distribute it equally. That’s state funding and that should go per pupil by each school by the number of kids, so that each school can start with the base class size that is equal. That is want Option A.2 tells you,” Sandstad said. “Option C says that because we setting aside these compensatory education funds we are going to unequally and unequitably distribute the general fund. We are going to take the funds that are intended for all students and give more of it to some students, and we are giving it to the schools that have less students underperforming.”

Both Lofald and Trnka said they were for Option A.2 because it was closer to the spirit of the resolution the board passed in January regarding compensatory education funds.

“We’re pitting this source of funding that was created at the state Legislature for a certain reason against class sizes,” Trnka said. “We absolutely need to reduce our class sizes and increase our number of (full-time employees). But the state designated this amount of money for certain resources. Because of the conversations that we’ve had leading up to this … given what the funds are allocated for I’m in support of (Option A.2).”

The board must approve a final budget for 2018-2019 school year by June 30. The preliminary budget approved Tuesday night left about $200,000 in reductions to be identified.