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Group scours the administration's proposal for possible cuts, but finds no more suitable alternatives

After scrutinizing various aspects of the administration's proposed budget and voicing concerns and questions raised by community members, the Newberg School District budget committee approved the $49.7 million fiscal plan for the 2018-2019 school year at its second official meeting May 15.

"I do think the committee functioned how it was supposed to in that it wasn't just looking at a budget, but it was representing the community," committee chairwoman Kat McNeal said. "I feel like committee members really did represent the community."

After being dealt a pair of major blows to the budget during the current school year -- first an approximately $1 million negative adjustment to its state school fund payment in the summer followed by a large enrollment drop in the fall -- district leadership cut an additional $4 million from the 2018-2019 budget.

The committee was tasked with reviewing the plan's alignment with the district mission, vision and goals, which in the end came down to confirming whether the cuts the administration proposed would minimize impact on classrooms.

Prior to introducing the budget, the administration identified significant cuts to the district office staff, the reduction or elimination of district-wide initiatives and professional development, and negotiating with its employee unions to cut four days from the school year.

The cuts to licensed and classified staff, or reductions in force (RIFs), weren't revealed until the budget was proposed at the initial May 1 committee meeting. A second meeting was held May 9 to allow committee members follow up with staff and to request further information prior to the second official meeting last week.

The cuts that drew the most scrutiny from the committee were 4.6 FTE in reading instruction and support. Staff presented a few alternative approaches it could take at various costs, but it was up to the committee to find any funding from elsewhere in the budget.

Committee members scrutinized numerous budget items and programs, ranging from the district's Welcome Center for migrant students and families to building discretionary budgets and athletic funding at the high school. But after hearing explanations from staff, the committee moved on from each item and ultimately decided against introducing any new cuts, judging them to be equivalent to raising class sizes even further.

McNeal said that all potential cuts were painful by that point, especially when 85 percent of the budget is staff.

"I think for what we had to do and how we did it, I feel like the committee was very thoughtful," McNeal said. "I don't feel like anyone walked out of there saying they felt good about this. We all walked out thinking, 'What do we do now and what can we do in the future?' I think that in itself is very important."

Committee member Rick Rogers specifically asked that the committee and staff discuss what measures have been taken by the district so as to avoid a repeat of the current situation.

Among those discussed were the board's recently-adopted ending fund balance policy and improved budgeting practices introduced by finance director Ilean Clute, who at various points explained various small tweaks she had introduced to improve forecasting accuracy.

One example was the athletics budget, which looked like it had increased in the proposed budget, but Clute explained it was simply a more accurate accounting of the department's spending.

"One of the hard things for the district right now is when we go to explain different aspects or parts of the budget to the community and committee members, we have to remember that in the last I think six years we've been through three CFOs," McNeal said. "So piecing together that information is challenging."

An outgrowth of that discussion was for the budget committee to meet more often during the school year so as to keep up-to-date on the fiscal situation instead of playing catch-up every spring.

That idea seemed popular among committee members as one part of a many-pronged approach to preventing future shortfalls, but board member Melinda Van Bossuyt warned that there is only so much the district can protect against as long as the district is beholden to a state funding system as turbulent and convoluted as Oregon's.

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