There are those who like to work with numbers, and then there are those who figure school budgets. They’re not necessarily the same person.
School finance consists of a labyrinth of property values, student enrollment totals, federal aid, and state aid. Only two people in Chetek claim to understand the funding formula from top to bottom: Superintendent Al Brown and business manager Tammy Lenbom.
A couple times of year their budgetary work catches the public’s eye – once in September when it comes time to pass the budget at the annual meeting, and once about this time of year when Brown and Lenbom propose that budget for next fall.
The budget proposal period is more visible, because that is when we find out how those financial decisions will affect people’s lives – teachers who may be forced to look for new jobs, or students who might have their favorite class offering taken away from them.
While it takes a professional to explain a school budget line item by line item, this article is an attempt to at least summarize how school administrators and the school board reach their budgetary decisions, as well as detailing some of the struggles they face.
The budget process begins in earnest in November. After the current year’s budget is passed by the school board at the annual meeting near the end of September, Brown and Lenbom have a few weeks in October when they don’t have to focus on planning a budget, though it’s always in the back of their minds.
“Tammy and I are never out of a budget cycle,” Brown says.
Under board policy, Brown must present a balanced budget to the school board each spring. Brown and Lenbom begin that process by projecting enrollments and revenue in November of each year. The duo uses a forecast model driven solely on assumptions which are reflective of current school conditions and state and federal legislation.
In December Brown and Lenbom review budget estimates with the board’s finance committee, factoring in inflation costs and establishing educational goals at the same time. They also receive facility maintenance needs from each building principal, who turn in any program or class changes they may want to suggest.
By January, the process is in full swing.
“January is the busiest month,” Brown said. “That’s when we throw everything out on the table.”
Building budget allocations are set, and principals need to determine where they can make reductions, or additions for that matter.
“We actually talk more about improving what we have than what we have to cut,” Brown claims.
Teacher contracts are reviewed. Brown and Lenbom estimate the number of retirements they’ll have and how the staff will be affected. The student registration process also begins in January. The major maintenance budget is allocated.
The open enrollment deadline passes in February, so the administration has more concrete numbers on what enrollment will be for the following year. Registration is completed, and principals can further determine their staffing needs.
By March, Brown and Lenbom can project a budget, and teacher contracts are distributed. That gives staff who may not be returning a head start on finding new employment.
Retirement notifications must be turned in to the administrative office in April, and final decisions on staff are made at the end of the month.
In May, the finance committee reviews the preliminary budget, and final staffing levels are officially announced for the following year.
Over the summer, Lenbom applies the finishing touches and prepares a budget booklet for the annual meeting in September. The district must wait for the third Friday in September to determine its student enrollment for that school year, which is then cemented into the budget.
The board then approves the property tax levy at the annual meeting in September, which determines how much financial support taxpayers will be providing the district.
Throughout the school year, Lenbom provides the school board with quarterly monitoring reports, insuring the board is well-informed about the district’s financial status.
Perhaps creating the most consternation for Brown and Lenbom is trying to determine how much state funding the district will receive, particularly in a year such as 2007 when the governor and legislature are settling on the next biennial budget.
Their negotiations can carry on late into the summer and even early fall, meaning school administrators all over the state are guessing how much money they’ll be receiving from the state.
In 1993, the state legislature imposed limits on how much revenue school districts can take in as a way to ease the burden on property taxpayers. Amid frequent criticism from school administrators, Gov. Jim Doyle has kept revenue caps in place during his tenure.
One of the great misconceptions involving school finance concerns the state’s pledge to two-thirds funding for public schools. Not every district receives two-thirds state funding. The state as a whole receives that amount – some districts receive much less, some districts receive much more.
That amount is determined by a complicated state formula figuring the district’s prior year’s expenditures and the district’s property value per student. The lower the property value per student, the more state aid that district will receive.
That formula works against a district like Chetek, which has high property values. In 2006-07, Chetek received only 49 percent funding from the state, not even half of its overall revenues.
“Is property value a true indicator of the wealth of your community?” asks Brown. “In our case, no. Around here we have people who are property-rich but income-poor. ”
Brown has seen that trend gradually reverse in his 13 years with the district.
“When I first started here in 1994, we were 76-percent funded by the state,” Brown points out.
Property values in the Chetek district have ballooned in the last decade. In the 1996-97 school year, the equalized property valuation was $221,251,132 in the district. In 2006-07 that figure climbed to $670,762,641.
Comparing school revenues using the latest information (2005-06) from the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance (WISTAX), Barron received 59 percent of its revenues from the state, Cameron 62 percent, Colfax 72 percent, Rice Lake 54 percent, Weyerhaeuser 24 percent, and New Auburn 23 percent.
The majority of the remaining revenue comes from property taxes paid by residents in the school district. In 2006-07, taxpayers contributed 45 percent of the revenue to the district. Federal aid consisted of 5 percent of Chetek’s revenue.
Brown says that revenue caps may not be the ideal funding structure for public education, but they may be as good as schools can hope for.
“Any time your dollars are connected to a political process, this is about as good as it’s going to get,” Brown acknowledges.
Most of any school district’s expenses are made up of salary and benefits packages for staff members. Seventy-eight percent of Chetek’s expenses in 2006-07 went to salaries and benefits. Brown says the state average expended in salaries and benefits is approximately 83 percent.
The remaining expenditures consist of instructional materials, operating costs, and maintenance costs.
The base salary for Chetek teachers in 2006-07 was $30,356. That tells only part of the story, as far as expenditures are concerned. Health insurance costs are killing school districts, just as they are killing businesses in the private sector.
Last year alone Chetek saw an increase of 20 percent in the cost of insurance premiums. In 2002-03, the district saw a leap of 34 percent in premium costs.
In 2000-01, the School District of Chetek was paying $7,802.64 in premiums for each teacher. In 2006-07 that figure reached $17,258.88.
Just as the administration estimates what the state’s budget may be, school officials sometimes have to guess what their teachers’ contract figures will be. Budgets are often approved before teachers’ unions have settled with districts regarding their salaries and benefits. Unions and districts may not settle on a contract until that contract has nearly expired, putting them behind schedule on negotiations for the upcoming budget cycle. For example, the Chetek district has been in arbitration with its custodial staff and their union for almost two years.
Gov. Doyle has proposed eliminating the qualified economic offer from his state budget. The QEO insures that teachers will not receive below a 3.8 percent increase in their salaries and benefits packages. Without the QEO, districts could offer more of a raise, or none at all.
Chetek has a history of offering slightly more than the established QEO. In 2006-07, the Chetek district and teachers negotiated a raise of 4.66 percent. In 2005-06, that increase was 4.09.
Where Chetek sits in 06-07
The Chetek administration has proposed a budget reduction of $363,750 in 2006-07. Reductions in staffing will occur in elementary instrumental music; high school math, technical education, business education, and English; and aide positions at both Roselawn Elementary and the high school/middle school IMC.
Breaking it down by building, Roselawn will reduce $16,096, the middle school $30,411, and the high school $128,331.
District operating costs will be reduced by $131,533, and special education costs will be reduced by $46,986.
The high school often sees many of the reductions in costs because of the amount of instructional materials needed. The high school offers elective courses, which are usually the first to be reduced in a budget crunch.
“We have more equipment intensive areas – such as tech ed, business ed, band, music – and more perishables in classes like art and science,” high school principal Ed Harris explains. “Our operating budgets are fairly predictable from year to year.”
Chetek continues to grapple with an open enrollment problem in the district. In 2006-07, 64 students open-enrolled out of the district, with seven coming in. Those numbers appear to be leveling out, as 65 open enrolled out in 2005-06, while eight came into the district.
Brown maintains this is the result of families moving into the district, but choosing to let their children attend their former, more familiar district, and not the result of Chetek’s district chasing students away.
Brown says Chetek combats this issue with unique offerings such as its virtual school and the fledgling Learning Options Program, which Brown adds is designed to prevent high school dropouts.
Chetek couldn’t absorb such reductions without the dedication of its staff, Brown says. That’s no consolation to a laid-off teacher who’s looking for a new job to help support a baby at home, or a student who just saw his favorite teacher reduced to part-time. But such is the price paid in the ever-changing realm of public education.
“The reason we can continue is because of the people we have working here,” Brown says. “They allowed us to have some of the things we have that other districts don’t have. Everyone in our district is working harder now than ever before.”