School budget cuts proving tough

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

A quarter of the Concordia R-2 School District's budget has already been cut in the past two years, and Superintendent Mary Beth Scherer explained how these cuts, along with future predicted shortfalls, are leading to major changes within the district.

The state spared foundation funds--the funds that can be spent anywhere there is a need--which Scherer said has allowed district administrators to maintain a level of comfort for students and parents. Scherer said the cuts have not been so easy on teachers, despite their efficient use of resources.

The worst sign of the times for the majority of teachers was the salary freeze put in place in 2010, and subsequent cuts to additional programs that have cost teachers money and time.

"This is the first year that pay was frozen. The only teachers that got a pay raise, were those teachers who went back to school and got additional [college credit]," Scherer said. "When you get your [additional eight credit] hours it's worth $400, but you know how much tuition is."

High school history and government teacher and 2009 Salary and Welfare Committee member Michael Brown said that furthering education is no longer a benefit in this economy.

"You market yourself out of a job because people are downsizing expenses," Brown said.

Concordia school district's size has saved administrators from making cuts to staff, because in many cases there is only one teacher per subject. The strategy being used is to employ new teachers to minimize salary expenses. This year alone the district has hired five new teachers to replace ones that left for other reasons.

"Most of who [our district], and most school districts are hiring, are new teachers. You pay for years of experience; if you get a new teacher, they're on the bottom of the salary schedule," Scherer said.

The .5 percent increase in retirement pay to teachers statewide, despite its small size, has caused a significant difference in teacher income.

"The thing is, we didn't get a raise last year and the state is taking out more of our money for retirement, so we're actually making less this year than we did last year," said high school science teacher Nathan Beissenherz.

When the district had to cut summer school, a move which Scherer said was necessary in order to maintain the core mission of the district--"k through 12, nine months of the year--that meant an additional loss to teachers.

"That was another $1,500 to $1,800 out of my pocket that I usually have," Beissenherz said. "Anytime you deal with someone's income, morale will go down."

Every supply budget, except the kitchen and maintenance budgets, have been cut 25 percent over the last two years, which affects teachers, Brown said, because if the school won't purchase the item the teacher most likely will.

"You see a lot of teachers--even more so at the elementary level than [high school level]--having to pull out of their own pockets money for things that they'd normally get from the school. Teachers are by nature very giving...so they're not only not gaining any, but they're losing more," Brown explained.

Beissenherz said there's a lot more "saying no" to purchase orders submitted by teachers because the administration is no longer just trusting the item is necessary and is looking more closely before orders are placed.

"Nobody likes being told 'no' so that's kind of a gloomy picture and morale probably suffers some from that also," Beissenherz said.

Looking more closely at all budget items is the strategy being used by district administrators to ensure the predicted $60 million shortfall does not have such a drastic impact on schools and their occupants.

In the past two years Scherer said they have managed to cut out $150,000 from the budget through being as financially conservative as possible. This is beneficial because State Budget Director Linda Luebbering predicts a tough two-to-three years, and unemployment to remain high through 2014.

"I think there's a possibility to cut in the future. I think the worst is still to come. [Scherer] shared with us the gloom of what the state legislature is talking about, and I think it's going to get worse before it gets better," Beissenherz said.

A new emergency education spending bill signed into law by President Barack Obama last week is scheduled to supply $10 billion to states to help districts minimize cuts to staff, despite some concern of not knowing when or if the money will reach schools. Thanks to $170,000 in state fiscal stabilization funds received by Concordia School District in the 2009-2010 school year, Scherer said goals of keeping food on tables were relatively successful.

Beissenherz, Brown and Scherer agreed that their life preserver has come in the form of the 45-cent levy passed by voters last April, but they also said that money will only allow for a less drastic impact to the district.

Editors note: This is the first part of a four-part series explaining the impact to the local school district due to state budget cuts.

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