Kalispell Schools Ask Public for Cost-Cutting Ideas

By Beacon Staff

Staring down a potential budget shortfall of anywhere from $500,000 to $1 million, Kalispell’s School District 5 is asking the public to be part of the budgeting solution by taking a survey to outline school-funding priorities.

Superintendent Darlene Schottle said the survey should help show what the public and school staff think are the most important and least important aspects of the district’s budget, which would be considered in the event that cuts need to be made.

“We just felt that it was important to create an opportunity for community input,” Schottle said.

One of the reasons the survey lists for the financial shortfall is the loss of funding due to failed levies and fewer resources due to a poor economy. The District 5 school board agreed to present a five-year, $6-million building and technology levy to voters in March.

A second reason for the budget gap is the district’s use of one-time stimulus funds to support certain operations and programs. “This is like a family using their savings account to cover monthly expenses,” the survey reads, “it covers the short term but is not sustainable over time.”

Other factors include continually rising costs for salaries, benefits and utilities.

While the budget picture is grim, Schottle said there is not a definite number to aim for yet since the Legislature still must decide how it will fund schools for the next biennium.

One financial upside for the school this year is an increase in elementary school enrollment, Schottle said, which means an increase in funding per student gained.

The nine-page online survey is anonymous and asks the survey taker to rank different money-saving strategies.

For example, under the “Revenue Enhancement” section, the participant must mark how much they agree with the district’s preliminary recommendations: running an annual operational levy; increasing the community fee for use of district facilities; closing and selling the district’s warehouse; hiring grant writers; and obtaining energy savings by shutting off equipment, lowering the heat and replacing the windows.

Other survey sections include “Staff Reduction or Realignment,” “Materials, Supplies and Services,” “Non-Instructional Programs,” “School and Instructional Design,” and “Other Considerations.”

In the staff section, the survey notes that the district is currently not within accreditation standards for the maximum student-to-teacher ratio due to previous budget shortfalls.

As for non-instructional programs, the initial recommendations for Kalispell Middle School are to institute a pay-to-play program; reduce the number of coaches; and remove athletic and activity programs altogether.

At the high school level, the survey asks participants to rate their level of support on such subjects such as increasing the pay-to-play fees; requiring students in activities to pay for more of their own meals when traveling; reduce the number of coaches; reduce general costs, such as uniforms, clothing, equipment or travel; and eliminating some activities.

Other sections ask for support levels on year-round school, reducing or eliminating math and reading intervention programs and moving to a four-day school week.

While the survey will give the school district an idea of the public’s and the staff’s priorities, Schottle said it will not be the sole deciding factor in the budgeting process.

“This is not a vote,” Schottle said. “Just because it receives the most votes doesn’t mean it’s the first thing to go.”

The recommendations on the survey highlight some of the largest cost-saving ideas, she said, and it could end up that partial reductions are made in multiple categories.

If a certain survey item receives a lot of public feedback to either reduce or support it, Schottle said the board will look at how much money is in that particular area and talk to school personnel about what needs to be done.

“We’re also trying to make our decisions as close to students as we possibly can,” Schottle said. “Those who work there would have a better idea of what the impact would be.”

The survey will be available until Feb. 20 online at www.sd5.k12.mt.us or in hard copy at district school sites. Schottle said she hopes to present some of the results at the school board meeting on Feb. 22.

Schottle said the district would try to have its initial budget recommendations ready by March in case of staff reductions or realignments. Final budgeting recommendations probably won’t come until May, once the Legislature has finalized its financial plan, Schottle said.

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