Benson School District set to make $635,000 in cuts next year
BENSON — When the Benson School Board meets Monday to give final approval to their 2013-14 budget it will include the biggest cut in expenditures in the district’s recent history.
The budget includes reductions in staff — including a principal’s position, delaying capital expenditures, the elimination of the family and consumer sciences program and a one year hard freeze on staff salary.
All told, the reductions mean savings of $635,909 for the district.
The board agonized over the cuts and heard feedback from parents during meetings earlier this spring and unanimously approved the list of specific cuts at a meeting in April.
With new legislation that channels more aid to K-12 schools, Superintendent Lee Westrum was putting the final touches on the $9.3 million budget this week but said it’s unlikely the previously approved reductions of staff and programs will change when the board votes on Monday.
Because of declining enrollment, the Benson School District has been making budget reductions every year for at least the last six years.
Those cuts ranged from about $100,000 in the 2009-10 school year to $189,000 this year.
During those six years, 14 fulltime and 10 part-time positions were eliminated.
Next year’s reduction of nearly $636,000 is by far the biggest in a single year, said Westrum, who told the board in February he was leaving his job in Benson to take the superintendent position in the Wadena-Deer Creek School District.
The reason is because of declining enrollment.
“It’s all enrollment-driven,” said Westrum. “It’s been a steady drum beat and we’re expecting that for the future as well.”
From 2009-2013, enrollment at Benson declined by 71 students.
The district ended this school year with 886 students, which is expected to hold steady for next year.
But enrollment is projected to drop by another 72 students from 2014-2017.
“It’s steady and it’s pretty significant,” said Westrum.
To match enrollment and revenues — and maintain a viable unreserved fund balance that gives the district some cash-flow breathing room — the board agreed to make the deep cuts in next year’s budget.
The district is currently not in danger of sliding into statutory operating debt, but Westrum said without making budget cuts now the fund balance would be spent down and the district would be looking statutory operating debt in the eye in the near future.
The board is also expected to ask voters this fall to approve a new operating levy.
The district’s current levy of $650 per pupil expires in 2015.
Westrum said it’s likely the board will propose revoking the existing levy and replacing it with a new, larger one.
He said the board discussed cost savings by moving to a four-day school week on a “superficial” level this year, but said the option may be discussed more intensely in the future.
In the meantime, the district will have to adjust to the effects of the cuts, including larger class sizes in the elementary grades and going from a full-time superintendent to a combination of a superintendent/principal, which will be filled by Dennis Laumeyer, who has been a principal at Benson for seven years.
The cuts also include cutting a full-time English position, full-time elementary teacher, full-time FACS teacher, full-time secretary, full-time custodian, half-time music position, half-time art position and ending its French language program. Other reductions include delaying capital expenditures and combining bus routes to reduce staff there.
Westrum said eliminating the FACS program drew considerable comments from parents who are concerned that students won’t have access to practical living skills.
If the cuts are given final approval Monday, the district will maintain an unreserved fund balance of about $900,000, which is about 11 percent of its budget. The ideal fund balance is 15 percent, said Westrum.
Although the state increased K-12 funding, Westrum said Benson will get about $113,000 more than expected. While he wouldn’t be “shocked” if the board decided to soften some of the cuts on Monday, given the new revenue, Westrum said they were “pretty solid in their conviction” to make reductions to stabilize the district’s finances.