Toward the end of her presentation Feb. 13 on the proposed budget for next school year, Randi Johnson, North Branch Area Public Schools director of personnel and finance, said about the outlook: “We’re in better shape than I can ever remember being in.”
She noted the district is in much better financial shape than it has been for years because of a number of factors: Enrollments over the past couple of years have been higher than projected; 1.5 percent more funding is available via a change in the state school funding formula; the state has changed the way it funds special education; and NBAPS is receiving an extra $512 per pupil unit as the result of its school board taking advantage of a non-voter-approved referendum and location equity index.
She said last spring when the district was working on budget projections, it was anticipated NBAPS would have a deficit of about $2.2 million.
The new funding wipes out that deficit and leaves the district some wiggle room for spending next year.
As an assumption of next year’s budget, Johnson said the district plans to keep its current staffing levels.
“Every position we currently have we would have next year,” she said.
Johnson said there have been some people within the district asking if NBAPS will have the financial ability to bring back some of the programs it cut before the state took recent steps to address the inequity in the state school funding formula.
“We will have some money to spend, but we will not be able to reinstate everything that we’ve cut over the last 10 years,” she said.
Johnson also mentioned more good news for North Branch schools and schools across the state.
“A state forecast in November projected a $1 billion surplus,” she said. “If that continues, then we should have less pressure from the state to be squeezing on our funding.”
NBAPS Superintendent Deb Henton said another assumption of next year’s budget is that the district would go back to a five-day school week.
“I have been recommending that since we learned of the funding,” she said.
Even with all of the good news, Johnson said funding concerns exist for NBAPS and other districts across the state. She said capital funding is an issue.
“School districts are having to use other funds that could be used for classroom teachers to do basic maintenance of their buildings,” she said. “The money they have to do that falls far short of their needs.”
She explained the state is researching ways address the capital revenue problem.
“There has been a task force at the state level that has been looking at capital funding,” she said. “That task force has come forth with a recommendation: Right now there are tremendous disparities in the funding available to school districts for capital improvement, and it’s not just based on what you can pass levies for. There are some formulas that allow some districts more access to money on virtue of the fact that they’re large.
“That task force looked at the funding and said, ‘There’s too much disparity here; we need to do something about that.’
“They’re recommending we basically make everybody the same and provide more equitable access to funding.”
In addition to that state-level concern, Johnson noted enrollment could continue to be an issue at North Branch schools.
She said enrollment is again projected to decline, albeit at reduced levels.
That, combined with teachers getting more money through a new contract, means another deficit.
“Your revenues are going to be flat with declining enrollment and you’re going to keep your staff and increase wages — that automatically means when you project out into the future, it’s going to look like you’re going to have a deficit,” she said. “What we don’t know at this time is what the Legislature is going to be doing next year.
“Is there going to be a state surplus? Are we going to get more money? Who knows?”
District staff will be coming to the School Board Feb. 27 with a recommendation on next year’s budget. A 6 p.m. public hearing is scheduled March 13 so citizens can come and express their opinions about the budget; that meeting is also designated as the one at which the board will take action on next year’s budget.