Rushford-Peterson Superintendent Jon Thompson has made it abundantly clear these last few months that the district is going to need to make some serious budget cuts. A March 1 press release from Minnesota Association of School Business Officials echoes several of Thompson’s concerns and clearly notes that R-P isn’t the only district in the state facing this challenge.
“Districts are budgeting now for next year and have been planning for budget cuts, reductions in staff and student programming, and increased class sizes if the state doesn’t increase education funding this legislative session, according to a new joint survey from several public education Associations,” states the release. Surveys were sent to 333 districts statewide with 144 responding. “Ninety two percent projected that with no formula increase, their general fund expenditures would exceed projected revenues for the 2021-22 school year – with several individual district deficits ranging into the millions,” it continued. “The survey demonstrates the reality school districts statewide are experiencing and how COVID has exacerbated the situation. According to the Minnesota Department of Education, 17,000 students withdrew from public schools last fall due to COVID related concerns, leaving a gaping hole in school district revenues.”
“It’s interesting to see how that impacts us, but it doesn’t impact our discussion tonight,” noted Thompson at the March 15 meeting. “One, we’re not the only district suffering. Two, we would have had to make budget cuts anyway this year, as we were projecting over a $100,000 deficit. It’s a double whammy.”
While the district was already anticipating exceeding expenditures by over $100,000, Thompson further explained the shortfalls. As of last November it was $288,336, a perfect storm of a pandemic, inflationary costs and salary increases, and more. He figured with an extra $200,000 for increase in costs, $488,366 would fix everything. “That number kinda sticks you in your head,” he added. “That’s highly aggressive and would be painful as a district. We need to make serious strides in correcting a deficit balance.”
The district is fervently hoping that 2020-2021 expenses will end lower than expected and that the state will approve a higher formula percentage for aid. The district will use Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds, paid federally through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, to help offset expenditures, including retaining staff and programming. The $13.2 billion set aside by congress for ESSER I will get a boost with $54.3 billion in additional ESSER II funding through the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act. Nearly $123 billion is anticipated for ESSER III through the larger $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan legislation signed into law by President Biden March 11.
Thompson also asked the board to consider reducing his position by a fifth, four days instead of five, and seeking to secure his contract for an additional three years, not two. By doing so, he would continue earning what he would have at the 2% increase, but will provide the district with cost savings. “If I was brand new without experience, it would be difficult,” he noted. “I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t feel it was a hardship. Over three years you can add that up and see the savings.”
In addition to meeting with district administration and staff about potential changes, he detailed a meeting with Community Education Director Lisa Lawston. The Community Service fund typically sees around $25,000 less revenue than expenses. “In the big picture, I think it’s something we can attack,” said Thompson. “If we can’t turn it around, we’ll have some hard choices to make in a year. Even though it’s continuing to be good, we can’t keep having a hole there.”
Thompson estimated that the district should look at $234,000-273,000 worth of cuts. “I think it’s a really good start,” he added. The district will also be reaching out to all families that opted to educate without the district for 2020-2021 and encouraging them to return. “We’re not going to say, ‘We’re short on money.’ That’s not fair to them. They’re making a choice based on their kids.”
“I’ve been a superintendent long enough to know you have ups and downs. Part of our responsibility is to make sure our district is financially sound,” he stated. “We have students who will be here in 10 years and what we do now affects them in the future. When it’s trending the wrong way, you react. If you let it get too far in the hole, it’s painful. You dig a deeper hole and are having to cut programs. We will have to look at it again next spring, but I wanted to put it out there.”
The board briefly touched on a possible Operating Levy Referendum, but the district will wait on pursuing that option for now. “Before we go to our public and make that request, let’s see how our budget cuts impact our district and how a post-pandemic world affects our district,” said Thompson.
In other news, the school board reports noted that all district staff wanting vaccination (85%) has now done so. Case numbers in the county have also dropped.
Board Director Matt Helgemoe questioned the current 4:1 model for in-person instruction, suggesting the district should look at five day again. “The kids who want to be here five days a week haven’t really had that opportunity. I’m looking at the other side, I guess,” he said. “Fauci just said three feet now today. It’s not approved, but that’s the direction things are going. I’d hate to pigeonhole us at four days for the rest of the year. Instead, I would like to see us try to lead and get five days back. We want the kids here really bad and we’re so blessed with this facility that we have. The major thing they talk about with COVID is air and the complete air exchange in this building is phenomenal.”
“Ideally, they want us to have six feet of social distancing, but are aware it’s going to be tough. Three feet came up, but I think we’d be kidding ourselves if we thought there was some magical three-foot zone,” responded Thompson. “There’s a lot that goes into it and it’s almost more about contact tracing than the spread. If we’ve learned nothing else, we’ve learned that two weeks from now might look totally different.” The district will maintain the current 4:1 model, but will not rule out returning to a five-day week later this year.
The next regularly scheduled board meeting is Monday, April 19, at 5:30 p.m., in the forum room. The meeting is open to the public.