Watching Education’s Bottom Line

By Beacon Staff

This year Montana students should expect more expensive lunches, fewer field trips and sparser classroom supplies because of a poor economy and high prices for food, fuel and energy. And unless the economy picks up soon, even bigger changes could be in store over the next couple of years.

As the 2008-2009 school year kicks off, Jerry House, Whitefish school district’s superintendent, said the outlook isn’t necessarily ominous, but it’s alarming.

“All schools, including Whitefish, will have to take a real hard look at how we do business,” House said.

According to Montana Office of Public Instruction (OPI) Superintendent Linda McCulloch, fuel costs for student transportation have nearly doubled to more than $5 million statewide in the past seven years. Electricity and gas prices in schools have increased nearly $10 million and the cost of food supplies has increased nearly $4 million. In the Flathead, school officials are scrambling to maintain quality educational environments while staying out of the red. Some districts, like Bigfork, have already used up their reserve funds.

“Montana’s public schools deal with the same economical issues facing businesses and families, McCulloch said.

With record fuel prices, even long-established bus routes are under scrutiny. In some states, school districts are shortening or eliminating routes altogether. While Flathead County’s school districts aren’t taking those measures, officials are looking to cut elsewhere. There will be fewer field trips this year or at least the trips will be closer to home. In Kalispell’s District 5, business manager Todd Watkins said schools get the same amount of transportation funding as last year, but with substantially higher fuel prices that money won’t go nearly as far.

“There will be fewer (field trips) most likely,” Watkins said. “So they’ll have to pick and choose carefully.”

Dustin Zuffelato, business manager for Columbia Falls’ school district, said the state’s reimbursement rate for transportation has remained at $1.80 per mile for several years. That rate no longer keeps pace with fuel costs.

“That difference is all absorbed into our local levy, so the local taxpayers are hit with that,” Zuffelato said. “Hopefully that’s addressed in the next legislative session.”

Watkins, who said the district has “had to make some pretty significant changes because of increased prices,” said aside from regular bus routes and field trips, officials also have to play the usual guessing game with extracurricular activities, especially high school. It’s impossible to predict how many teams will travel to state tournaments, so Watkins said he budgets enough for all of them to go, which never happens, and then uses the rest of the money to upgrade athletic facilities and equipment. Having two high schools in Kalispell makes budgeting even trickier, he said.

Officials from the Montana High School Association have been in talks for several years with local school officials about regionalizing athletics, which would minimize the number of cross-state trips teams make.

Whitefish has a unique situation in which the high school perennially sends an above-average number of athletes to state championships. While the long-standing tradition of athletic success is a source of deep pride in the town, it puts a strain on the district’s budget.

“It’s a blessing and a curse,” House said.

Kalispell’s district has raised lunch prices this year from $2.00 to $2.50 for sixth grade through high school, a 25 percent jump. Bigfork has done the same, while Whitefish already made the same push last year. Columbia Falls also raised prices from $2.00 to $2.50 for high school this year and made smaller increases for younger grades. Adult lunches for teachers and staff are on the rise as well, as are breakfasts. Watkins said in his 15 years with the school district, he has never seen such a large jump in lunch prices.

Zuffelato said federal food reimbursements, much like state fuel reimbursements, haven’t kept pace with rising costs.

“Food service is going to be a big problem for us,” Zuffelato said. “It has been for a few years.”

School districts have reserve funds to help with tough economic times, though they are limited. Watkins said, if prices continue to soar, the “reserve account could become an emergency account.” In Bigfork, the reserve fund is already gone. Eda Taylor, business manager for the district, said last year, for the first time in years, Bigfork’s expenditures outpaced its revenues. So school officials were forced to dip into the reserve account.

While the district has raised food prices, Taylor said frugality is also “about cutting, not just raising.” Classroom supplies have been reduced this year.

“We desperately need to make sure that we get those revenues up equal to the expenditures,” Taylor said.

Not all is bleak. Zuffelato is hoping for changes at the 2009 Legislature, while Watkins points to existing bright spots, including the energy-efficient biomass boiler at Glacier High School. Last year, Glacier spent $89,000 on natural gas and woodchips. Flathead High School spent $150,000 on natural gas alone. Watkins points out that the biomass boiler had a few problems and should be even more efficient this year.

House is hopeful that local schools will get through these tough financial times.

“I honestly feel the district is going to do everything in its power to make sure all students have the opportunities they need and deserve,” House said.