In a letter sent to faculty and staff the day before Thanksgiving, Superintendent Mark Adler laid out what he called a “very serious budget situation” facing the Ralston school district.
So serious, he wrote, that the district was considering layoffs as one option for cutting its budget by as much as $2.7 million next year — an amount that represents roughly 8.7 percent of this year’s $30.9 million budget.
Ralston’s situation — and the steps it has taken to address it — put the school district in the same belt-tightening mode as a number of others in the area.
District 66 and the Millard and Omaha districts have made cuts through attrition. Even fast-growing districts such as Elkhorn have kept hiring to a minimum.
All cite similar reasons for the pinch: largely stagnant property tax valuations in the metropolitan area and declining state aid have cut into revenues, while costs, including health care, retirement and transportation, continue to grow. One added complication in Ralston has been a decline in enrollment — down 80 students since 2008-09 — which has reduced its state aid.
The district has lost more than $1.5 million in state aid over the past two years and nearly $700,000 as a result of the Learning Community’s common property tax levy.
Statewide, school officials, including Adler, have been making their case to lawmakers to fully fund the school aid formula, which would call for a 10.3 percent increase in funding next year. Lawmakers, however, have indicated that the state can’t afford to go that high.
The Ralston district has been working hard to cut costs, keeping spending flat the past three years, Adler said. “I think our path has been the right path.”
Jane Leadabrand, president of the Ralston Education Association, said Adler has been open about the budget problems.
“We’re just kind of taking it a day at a time to see how it plays out in the end,” said Leadabrand, a special education resources teacher.
In the hope that buyouts can prevent more drastic measures, the Ralston school board last month approved an enhanced voluntary separation program for longtime educators. About 45 employees are eligible and have until Jan. 4 to notify the district if they plan to participate in the program, which won’t be funded after next year.
That tally will help the district determine what additional cuts, if any, will be needed. Seventeen staff members accepted a similar offer in 2010-11. Adler said it’s too early to get a good idea of how many will take the current offer.
Ralston has cut 33 jobs through attrition over the past three years — a savings of $1.2 million. It froze the hiring of support staff 18 months ago. Although it did fund a $900 increase in teachers’ base salaries this year, it froze, for one year, the salary scale that gives teachers credit for length of service.
The district has made other cuts. Three years ago, it switched to an outside vendor for food services, saving $750,000 over that time and providing students with better choices. The district took over mowing two years ago, saving $60,000 a year, and last year it renegotiated a copier contract for $50,000 a year in savings.
Similar cuts have been common across the metro area:
»District 66 is paring back early retirement programs next year, essentially phasing them out for now. In the meantime, 34 teachers and administrators have chosen to retire before the programs are halted. The district has cut the equivalent of 18.5 positions in the past two years through attrition, said Andy Rikli, assistant superintendent of administrative operations.
It trimmed about $6 million, upward of 8 percent, out of its proposed budget heading into the current school year and is looking at cutting an additional $4 million — about 6 percent — next year. That, however, is a worst-case scenario that doesn’t count savings from vacancies and the voluntary separation program.
“All of us are probably in a similar circumstance,” he said.
»Millard has cut its general fund budget two years in a row, from $214 million in the 2010-11 school year to $208 million this year, said Ken Fossen, associate superintendent for general administration.
Over the past two years, the district has grown by 526 students and has reduced its staff by 94 positions through attrition. It also has reduced spending on capital improvements — roofs and the like — by $6 million and has drawn $5 million from its cash reserves.
The district, Fossen said, is just starting to look at next year. But a big factor will be what happens with state aid.
»The Elkhorn school board recently approved $2.79 million in new staffing for next year in order to cover two new elementary schools and other needs in the district, which is expected to add at least 350 students.
But that spending had already been pared back by nearly $1 million. “This was our comfort level at this time,” said Superintendent Steve Baker.
Ralston’s Adler, meanwhile, has been meeting with any staff member interested in sharing ideas for cuts. He met with more than a dozen last week.
“In the end,” he said, “we’re going to have a strong school district, just like we do now.”
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