School staff members safe for this round of budgeting

by Jim Boyle
Lakeville Schools, often considered a twin to Elk River Area Schools, will close a school and cut the equivalent of 94 jobs with a recent vote of its School Board.
The striking similarities between the two school districts do not extend, however, to the current budget cycle for the upcoming school year. Elk River will not have to resort to such drastic measures in wrestling with its 2011-12 school budget.
School administrators said Monday, March 7, at a work session with the Elk River Area School Board they believe — under the latest revision of the proposed budget and associated assumptions — the district will replace all of its retirees and even add four teachers for the coming year to maintain current staffing levels.
Superintendent Mark Bezek sought the board’s permission to author a memo to this effect soon to help calm nervous school staffs.
“It’s an anxious time in the schools,” Bezek said.
School districts across the state are bracing for up to a 5 percent cut in state funding. Some are being more conservative in their predictions. No one is budgeting with the notion there will be an increase in funding from the state Legislature.
Randy Anderson, the school district’s executive director of business services, is predicting legislators and the governor will decrease state aid by 2 percent. He also points out the state shorted it $2 million in special education dollars owed this past year, but he points to several factors that have prevented the district from falling off a cliff — just yet anyway.
Stimulus funds have helped. Collaborative agreements at the negotiating table have helped. And the work of business services to cut costs has helped. So has a small burst of student population growth in an unusual place.
The district actually witnessed an increase in the number of high school seniors from one year to the next. Usually that number goes down. “That’s huge,” Anderson said.
The school district is in the midst of offering a $10,000 retirement incentive to teachers. So far, 11 teachers have put in for their retirement. The school district needs 16 to offer the incentive. The deadline was March 11.
“We’re optimistic that were going to meet that,” said Rod Barnes, executive director of labor relations and personnel services. “We’re watching it day by day.”
Elk River schools are not far, however, from staring at colossal budget cuts again. As Anderson plugs in the district’s numbers and more budget assumptions he foresees having to tame a $10 million shortfall in the two years after the next school year.
Lakeville is already past that point. In a unanimous vote there, the board approved a plan to cover a projected two-year budget gap of $15.8 million. The plan calls for belt-tightening to the tune of $6.8 million for the 2011-12 school year.
District 728 has already instituted some of the cuts they plan.

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