Southern Door Grapples With Budget Deficit

The Southern Door School Board debated how to balance its budget at a three and a half hour session June 29.

Going into the meeting the board was staring at a $862,018 deficit for the 2011-12 academic year thanks to declining enrollment, cuts in state aid for schools, and a failed April referendum.

The school board joined Gibraltar, Sevastopol, Sturgeon Bay and Washington Island school districts by seeking approval for a revenue limit override last April. The school asked residents for approval to exceed the revenue limit by $400,000 in the 2011-12 academic year and by $850,000 in 2012-13.

Unlike their neighboring Door County schools, however, Southern Door’s referendum failed. The school was hit even harder when Gov. Scott Walker’s budget slashed state aids to schools, forcing the district to find more savings.

Superintendent Joe Innis has said that using the school’s $3.4 million general fund balance to cover the shortfall is not an option because the fund would be used up in less than three years. He described ways the school had trimmed its budget already.

Innis said the school received an insurance credit that will save $146,518 in the budget. Replacing retiring teachers with new staff members hired at a base salary saved additional funds. More staff members still need to be hired, however, and as many as five students could open enroll at other districts, which would cost Southern Door nearly $80,000.

The board decided not to make cuts to the gifted and talented program and the reading recovery program. The gifted and talented program costs $64,496, while reading recovery costs $61,536.

Innis recommended that the board keep the programs because of their value to the students.

“We have Southern Door kids who need [them],” Innis said. “I’m not going to recommend we cut those programs – I just think they’re too valuable.”

The board found $20,000 of savings through a combination of fees and insurance changes and by reducing the technology budget by $10,000. The board agreed to raise the district’s deductible from $10,000 to $15,000, which would lower its premium by $2,250.

They realized $2,100 in savings by replacing two tables in the elementary cafeteria instead of the slated four, and decided to raise recess milk fees from $6 per semester to $10 per semester. A mandatory laundry fee was also established for all football athletes at $10 per student, raising $750 in revenue.

Cuts weren’t the only thing on the table at the meeting. The board agreed to an annual data retreat for staff members to examine test scores and student performance to find ways for the school to improve. A universal screening program was also agreed upon, which would test students in Kindergarten through 12th grade multiple times per year. The tests would help teachers and administrators adjust curriculum and follow students’ progress. The board also discussed adding a half-time technology position at a cost of $30,000.

Throughout the course of the meeting, members debated particular budget line items that over the past two academic years were budgeted for but not spent.

Board Member Terry McNulty fought for cuts all night, and said that administrators are supposed to stick to their budget.

“These are the things that we can shave so our budget looks a lot better,” McNulty said.

Other members of the board disagreed, and when the board pored over line items, administrators present explained that even though certain line items expenses weren’t used precisely as budgeted, the money was shifted elsewhere as expenses arose.

While the budget for travel submitted by Elementary Principal Laurie Connell is slated for $1,500, only about $400 was spent. But though the money is budgeted in one area, she utilized the funds where other needs arose.

“Truly, the definition of a budget is an estimate,” said school board member Dawn Routhieaux.

School Board Clerk Pamela Parks also voiced concern over line items and said that if the board asks for a referendum in the spring of 2012, taxpayers will want to see that the board has been doing its job.

“I still think we should try to tighten up in some areas, so we can show the public we’re doing our work,” she said.

Innis said the district already cut over a million dollars from the budget and the school board handed down a five percent budget cut to the principals and department heads. The main goal now is finding common ground and coming up with a solution.

“We’ve got to have a school board that agrees on [the budget] and everybody goes out there and tells the same thing to the community,” Innis said.

By the meeting’s end the deficit stood at $387,133. The board agreed to discuss the budget further at a meeting scheduled for July 18.