Now that it's decided to keep the school's tax levy the same as last year, what does the future hold for the Koshkonong (Oregon-Howell) School District? According to Superintendent Luke Boyer, the school will tighten its belt for the coming years.
The reason behind the proposed tax levy increase was because the school district is in "a sensitive financial situation," Boyer said.
The superintendent said the school is facing a financial problem, largely because of declining enrollment and reduced state money.
Boyer said the school started making a progressive movement towards finding a solution to the problem as soon as the board realized the situation in September or October of 2008. He said he and the board saw the need to bring the issue to the public.
Before making the final decision, the school board held three tax hearings in the elementary school cafeteria that were open to the public. Boyer said these meetings were to get an idea of what the community wanted.
However, there was much hostility during these meetings, which was due to the spread of rumors in the community, such as the school spending $100,000 on landscaping, which is not true, according to School Board President Tom Lewallen. Other such rumors hinted that the school was involved in other wasteful spending practices. Another rumor spread that classes would start later in the school year to cut back on costs. Boyer said school will start as scheduled Aug. 19.
"Unfortunately, people had to wade through a lot of the rumors that had been spread in the community. I think once we got a lot of those things ironed out and people on more of a path of truth, they were a little bit more level headed and ready to listen and hopefully we opened up a dialogue between the community and the district," Boyer said.
The Aug. 8 tax hearing was the last public meeting about the school tax levy. Before the meeting began, one resident asked for a show of hands how many did not support the tax increase. A majority of the 70 to 80 residents attending raised their hands. During the meeting, another curious resident asked for a show of hands how many parents who have children in the school where there. Less than half of those attending raised their hands.
Some residents raised concerns about the school's cell phone and propane bills. Others thought teachers and the superintendent were paid too much. Boyer replied to this by saying that although teachers' salaries cannot be lowered further (faculty are already paid the lowest possible for the state), he would be willing to take a cut in his own salary if the board chose to pay him less to save the school money.
There was also talk of reducing or eliminating extra curricular activities for students. Though the school has already set limits for some extra curricular activities for the upcoming school year, it was also pointed out that many students are attracted to certain schools for their extra curricular activities. Since a large part of the school's financial issues stem from a lack of enrollment, talk of cutting programs soon dissipated. However, the school will monitor these activities to find ways to cut back on spending.
Near the end of the meeting, a ballot was passed out. The ballot had a number of choices. One supported a 78 cent tax increase. Another one stated, "I'm willing to support a tax increase but I don't think we can increase by more than 45 cents." Another choice was for those who did not support a tax increase. There was also another blank were people could fill out suggestions under "other." When the ballots were counted, 50 were against the tax increase and about 20 were for either some sort of tax increase or for doing something else about the school's situation.
A school board meeting that followed the tax hearing Aug. 10 decided the issue. The tax levy will stay, as is, at $3.53 per $100 of assessed property.
Boyer said he hopes there were some positive outcomes from the community tax hearings. "Our number one priority was to bring the issue to the public and I hope we got that accomplished and I hope we started rebuilding a relationship between the community and the school," Boyer said.
Facts on tax increase
Boyer stressed that the school will be good on funds for the 2009-2010 school year but the school will lose $75,181 the following school year in state funds because of declining enrollment.
The school's enrollment in 2006 was about 265. It dropped at the beginning of 2009 to about 210. Boyer said he is expecting this school year's enrollment to be better at 265 to 270.
"Declining enrollment is our biggest factor in reduced state money," Boyer said. "In fact, it's largely the only factor."
The school's average deficit spending since 2006 is about $22,500 with the school just managing to break even in 2007.
"We're a product of our economic times and high gas prices, and for whatever reason, families with students are not moving in (to Koshkonong) as fast as they are leaving," Boyer said.
New elementary school
Some who attended the tax hearings expressed concerns over the elementary school that was built in 2003.
Boyer, who has been superintendent of the Koshkonong School District for a full year, said he was only able to speculate as to how the bond came about to build the new school years ago.
"Typically, bonds are kind of like a car loan or home loan where you pay a steady increment throughout the duration of the loan," Boyer said. "This bond just wasn't set up that way and it (the payment) has escalated throughout the last three or four years. So, that's one reason why we find ourselves in this predicament, is because, now, we're doubling the payment that we've made on the elementary," Boyer said. "It's created a bit of a hardship."
"What I keep reminding people is we can sit and point fingers all day. We can bicker and complain about what we're dealing with right now. The fact is, we find ourselves at this point on the path and we've got to move forward," Boyer said.
Boyer went over a few projects the school needs to do. However, with the school financial issues, the school will have to cut back on some of these projects.
The facility needs include underpinning and paint for the mobile buildings, sealing and painting the art/music building, putting a new roof on a district house, concrete patching, re-mortaring and painting the high school foundation, resealing the brick on the library and resealing the parking lot.
There are also technological needs such as adding interactive white boards that may also have to be put on hold. Boyer said the computers Koshkonong School District uses are refurbished computers from a correctional center in Northeast Missouri. Because they are older computers, they require more maintenance. Boyer also said the district server needs to be replaced, as well, because of its age and its lack of reliability.
The school district also has an aging bus fleet of eight buses. The newest bus is 3-years-old and the oldest one is 16-years-old and the average age of the Koshkonong bus fleet is 11.14 years. The average age for bus fleets in the state is 8 years.
Changes and cuts
Boyer said all faculty and staff took a freeze on their salaries the past school year unless there was a change in their duties or assignments or otherwise defined by state minimum salary requirements. The school has also cut one administrative position, four certified positions and three support staff positions.
"We are currently running on what I call a bare bones operation," Boyer said. He said this means the school has reduced its faculty and staff all it can to maintain proper school functions.
Many feared the school district would be forced to consolidate or turn into a K-8 school. Boyer said these are no longer options.
"The truth is we are not considering (consolidation) an option now," Boyer said. "What we are stating, is if we continue to deficit spend, basically through the 10 percent fund balance that we have, we're looking down the road that we will have to take some sort of proactive approach."
Boyer said if the school had no choice but to consolidate, it is possible that the district would be split into three sections between Thayer, Alton and Howell Valley (West Plains).
The total debt, which includes all of the school's maintenance and loans, over the next 11 years is about $1.3 million. If the school absolutely had to consolidate, Boyer said that debt would be defered to whatever school took over the district.
As for turning the school into a K-8 school district, Boyer said it is not economically feasible.
"Keep in mind, we still have the funding for a good ways out," Boyer said. "Do we have enough money to make it for the next couple years? Absolutely, but things will be tight and there will not be a lot of improvements."
Boyer said the school has a fund balance above 10 percent, which means the school can use that money for funding in the 2010-2011 school year if needed. "It basically means that if the state were to withhold all their funding, we basically have over 10 percent of our operating budget in the bank," Boyer said.
"I want to make it clear that this whole issue that we've discussed over the past three or four weeks has been more of a long-term plan," Boyer said. "It's not necessarily a plan to get us through this next year."
"Primarily, I think our biggest hurdle to cross is the 2010-2011 school year," Boyer said. "From that point, depending on the economy and what the state does, we'll have to plan for the worst and hope for the best."
Currently, there is no plan on how to attract more students to the Koshkonong School District. However, Boyer said one thing the school can do is to let students know that Koshkonong is an option that is open to them.
"I think our number one priority as a school district is to make this as positive a school district as we possibly can," Boyer said. "As an administrative team, we're trying to give the impression that we want to appeal not only to our own students, our own population, we also want to appeal to the students in the rural West Plains area who might see Koshkonong as a good opportunity for them. We believe we do have something to offer those students and we basically want to make sure that they understand what we're about and what we're accomplishing here."
Boyer said some attractions to the Koshkonong School District include the school's Future Farmers of America (FFA) program and other vo-tech programs the school offers.
"If a student is interested in agriculture, Koshkonong is a great school for them," Boyer said. There is also a catering class available to students and the school is piloting a nursing course.
"We just found out that we did meet AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) again this year, which is only shared by approximately 25 percent of the schools in the state," Boyer said. "We're really proud of that. Koshkonong has a history of preparing students academically at a very high level." He said the teachers and administration help accomplish students' academic achievements.
Suggestions from public
Boyer said the school welcomes any suggestions from patrons on how to reduce spending.
One suggestion that the school is looking into is the possibility of using outdoor wood furnaces to cut back on the school's $40,000 to $50,000 propane bill. Boyer said because the school campus is separated into multiple buildings it is inefficient to heat and cool all of them.
"Basically, we're an open book for suggestions," Boyer said.
Those with suggestions can contact Boyer at 417-867-5601 or through his e-mail at email@example.com.