Challenges, opportunities await in coming years
Hello, I am Jane Bunting and I am currently the vice chair of the ISD 728 School Board. I am entering my third and what could be the most challenging, or exciting, year. I believe it will be the both.
I said this could be the most challenging year because our school district, the eighth largest in Minnesota, is in need of funding. Since our federal stimulus funding has dried up, state shifts in payments to schools continue, and we experienced negative student growth last year, we had to extract money from our reserve fund to cover our deficit. That leaves us in the precarious situation of needing to make cuts in staffing and programs and not being able to launch most of our new strategic plan initiatives. It is for just this reason that we are informing you, our taxpayers, about two levy questions that will be on the Nov. 6 ballot.
The fork in the road we now face is whether to invest in or hold the line on the educational growth of our students. Invest in would look like the passing of both levies to ensure a stable budget and allow us to offer free all-day, everyday kindergarten, unleash more technology into learning, updating our curriculum to stimulate the continued academic progress of our students and have operating monies to support these initiatives. Hold the line would be the situation if one or both do not pass, the depletion of our reserves and making sweeping cuts to balance our budget. We need to know which direction you think we should go. The election results for the two levies will signal which road we will take. This might sound like a scorched earth speech, so let me explain.
I am a business owner and I am fiscally conservative. My fellow school board members will attest that I want to know where and how every tax dollar is invested. I make no amends to my business approach as it relates to our school district’s operations. When it comes to the education of our youth, I need to make sure my and your money is going where it should be.
I believe it is.
Here are the facts. More than 76 percent of our budget goes to classroom instruction and support. That’s 3 percent higher than the state average. And we are educating our children with $1,750 less, per student, than the metro average. When it comes to operating levy funding, we are currently at $698 per student; the metro average is $1,261. We are woefully behind in funding across the board.
So, what are we doing to manage your tax dollars? In the past four years we have:
•Restructured regular school bus transportation, resulting in annual savings of $1 million.
•Implemented a voluntary retirement incentive plan with annual savings of more than $500,000.
•Achieved savings of $500,000 in the renewal of health insurance plans.
•Realized a 34 percent premium cost decrease in long-term disability insurance.
•Refinanced in the past two years more than $65 million in Capital Appreciation Bonds, saving taxpayers more than $4.5 million in interest.
These are just a few of what we have done to be fiscally responsible. Our financial management team has also, for four consecutive years, received a national Certificate of Excellence in Financial Reporting award. We have had third-party audits that certify that we are consistent with national accounting standards. Our Legislative Action Team has also tried for three straight years to have legislation passed that would provide financial equity relief to our district.
I could go on, but I believe you get the point. We have a wonderful school district, but we need to do more to become the world class organization that community participants designed as our goal during our strategic planning process. We have accomplished volumes with the upward trend in our educational assessments, but they need to be even higher if our students want to actively compete for college entrance and for good jobs. We are scratching the surface when it comes to technology, but we have so much more to do to integrate it into learning by equipping our teachers and students and to be prepared for the unknowns of future advancements. We have a strong curriculum, but it can only remain that way with review cycles that are at a minimum, the state average of seven years, rather than our 10-year cycle. Simultaneously, we will continue to explore new delivery methods and other operational efficiencies that may reduce our costs.
Now this can be the most exciting year ever for our school district. With passage of both of our levy questions, we will address the current needs. We will implement free, all-day, everyday kindergarten. We will improve technology and curriculum. We will avoid increasing classroom sizes and mass elimination of positions and programs. Most of all, we will be investing in our students. The decision is yours.
I want you to learn more about our finances and our levy questions. Go to www.elkriver.k12.mn.us/2012levy. And most of all, I ask that as you become educated on our finances, that you make informed decisions on Election Day. — Jane Bunting, Rogers (Editor’s note: Bunting is the vice chairwoman of the Elk River Area School Board.)