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After long struggle, ACGC is back in black

ATWATER -- After four years of having the scarlet letters S-O-D attached to their school, the Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City School District is now free from that negative financial title.

An audit completed this month has determined ACGC is no longer in statutory operating debt, which is the Department of Education's term for having debt that exceeds state limits.

Connie Dallmann, ACGC business manager, made the announcement Monday during the school board meeting to a round of applause the board's members.

Not only is the district out of statutory operating debt, said Interim Superintendent Roger Rueckert, but the district is in the black "a little bit."

Dallmann estimates the district met the state financial benchmark with about $4,000 to spare. "Black is black," she said.

Earlier estimates had the district meeting the state standards this fall but remaining in the red.

The district is "not floating in money," said Dallmann, who reminded board members to "keep in mind what we've been through."

The process of getting out of statutory operating debt hasn't been easy.

The School Board made deep cuts in staff, education and arts programs. Some entire programs, including the family and consumer sciences, were eliminated.

"It's been tough," said Chairwoman Judy Raske, who said the district had to "make some tough decisions" in the last four years.

While in statutory operating debt the district was allowed to spend state-required staff development money to balance its budget. As a result, the district is long overdue in updating its curriculum in math, science and reading and has not had provided teacher training.

The district lags behind other area districts in student test scores, especially in science. Math and readings scores are also lower.

Financial cuts to the custodial department had some unhealthy consequences, as well.

There have been a "lot of sacrifices" for the district to meet the financial goal, said Rueckert

New money from an operating levy that was approved this spring won't come to the district until the 2009-10 school year. That's giving the school board time to plan positive changes for the district, Raske said.

"It's wonderful. It gives us a chance to look to the future," Raske said. A "big burden" has been lifted, she said, and the school board can now "do what we're supposed to be doing" by focusing on improving student education instead of looking for more things to cut.

Committees are being established to review the curriculum and plan for updating materials. The committee will travel to the successful districts to find out what they're doing right that could be done at ACGC.

Another committee will examine options for staff development.

A school improvement committee, which will include public input, will look at other ways to improve education in the district.

The mood at the board meeting was definitely lighter and there is eagerness to start implementing programs to improve the district and the education the students receive.

"It's an adventure," Rueckert said. "We're just starting out."

A preliminary report on student enrollment was also encouraging. Although the total enrollment was down six students from last spring, there are 10 more students at ACGC North Elementary in Atwater this year.

In the meantime, the district will have just as many challenges this year as last year to keep a tight budget in place, said Raske, especially since the legislature isn't likely to come up with additional money for education.

Barring a "catastrophe," she's confident the district won't temporarily slip back into statutory operating debt this year but will keep the scarlet letters -- and the red numbers on the financial log -- at bay.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for more than 30 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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