School districts battle budget

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Sometime around mid-May every year, after the state releases school funding figures, area school district superintendents begin firming up their budgets for the upcoming school year.

With less money coming from the state, many districts have cut programs such as summer school, eliminated many field trips, consolidated bus routes or merged sports programs with other districts.

In recent years, the cuts have been deeper, with districts looking for even more ways to bring down costs.

The Couch School District, which hasn't had summer school the past two years, recently approved a shorter calendar for 2011-12, which trims eight days from the school year.

"I wish we were having summer school," Couch Superintendent Tom Bull said Thursday, May 26. "But, it would take too much from our regular school budget."

With state funding flat as costs continue to rise, Couch merged its four bus routes into three last year and dropped two teachers this year.

"We still have a lot of students who drive to school," Bull said. "I don't understand that."

This coming year, the Couch District also will lose $13,000 from its preschool program, which costs about $85,000 annually for 20 students.

The state is working to phase out its Missouri Preschool Program, and districts will have to find another way to fund the program, he said.

Transportation costs

Bull said the Couch School Board approved the shorter 2011-12 calendar, even though it means longer days for students, because those eight days of not running school buses or using electricity will save the district about $30,000.

The Alton and Koshkonong school districts also opted for shorter calendars for 2011-12, with the greatest savings likely realized by the Alton School District, which operates buses 1,200 miles a day over 493 square miles.

"We'll see how that all turns out," Alton Schools Superintendent Sheila Wheeler said of the upcoming shorter school year.

Last year, Alton consolidated its 11 bus routes into 10 to save money. This year, it has also eliminated some staff positions.

National food program

Wheeler said the district also is considering raising meal prices. That increase, however, is mostly so the district can remain in the National School Food Service Program, and not a means to generate revenue.

Through the national program, schools receive free commodities from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, such as chicken, peanut butter, oatmeal and cheese.

"We've had a lot of chicken this year," said Dan Chappell, superintendent of Thayer Schools, where 300 lunches are served daily.

The USDA notified school districts, this year, they must increase their lunch prices to be closer to the national free lunch price. The national school lunch program pays districts $2.72 for free lunch and $2.32 for reduced lunch.

Couch charges high school students $1.35 for lunch; Alton charges $1.20 and Thayer recently upped its high school lunch price by 5 cents to $1.80.

Chappell said he calculates in the cost of all kitchen supplies, salaries and equipment costs when drafting Thayer's food service budget.

With meal prices at $1.75 last year, Thayer lost about $43,000 on its meal program. Of that, $14,500 was for non-food items, such as cleaning supplies, and $9,000 was for equipment repairs.

Wheeler said Alton lost about $3,000, where 70 percent of students are on the free and reduced program. About 54 percent of Thayer students receive free or reduced-price lunches.

Adding it all up

Chappell said another cost-saving measure Thayer recently enacted was in purchasing a 2,500-gallon diesel tank so the district can bid for fuel. The district's transportation funds from the state this year were cut in half, from $70,000 to now $35,000.

Depending on field trips, Chappell said, the district will fill the new tank eight to ten times per year. By bidding for fuel in bulk, the district could save 25 to 50 cents per gallon, he said.

"Maybe $3,000 or $5,000 here and there doesn't sound like much, but it all adds up," Chappell said. "My philosophy of budgets is I anticipate low on revenue and high on expenditures. That keeps us out of trouble."

Chappell said the cuts from other areas allowed the district to retain all staff and teachers.

"We're trying not to send anybody home, and so far, we haven't had to," Chappell said. "It's all about trying to make good projections."

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