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Lawmaker warns tough economic times are likely ahead for school districts locally

GROVE CITY -- After slugging its way out of statutory operating debt by making deep budget cuts and succeeding in passing a levy referendum after four failed attempts, the last thing the Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City School Board wanted to hear was more bad financial news.

But that's what it got Monday when Rep. Dean Urdahl spoke to the board about the state's budget deficit and how entities -- like schools -- could fare in the future.

"There was no optimism to speak of," said Superintendent Roger Reuckert of Urdahl's message.

Reuckert said Urdahl promised to "try to maintain as much as could be" but that there would be no increases made to the basic formula for K-12 education for the next several years. The best that could be hoped for was that money won't be cut from education while the state deals with its $5.2 billion deficit.

"Things will get tougher for schools," Reuckert said.

He also said the Legislature might consider giving school districts more "flexibility" when it comes to fund mandates.

For example, districts are currently required under state law to use 2 percent of their basic revenue for staff development. Districts that are in statutory operating debt are exempt from that requirement.

Reuckert said it's possible the Legislature will give all districts the option to use that money for general fund expenses.

Because ACGC has already been through its darkest hours, Reuckert said it may be in a better position than most districts to weather the storm.

ACGC made deep budget cuts and actually expects to have a budget surplus this year. It will get new levy revenue in the 2009-10 school year that may allow some educational programs to be restored.

"We're mean and lean now," Reuckert said, but "things are shining," at ACGC.

The district's enrollment is "stable" and in line with early expectations. The School Board has approved a set of goals, including improving test scores, that it intends to meet. "The district is looking forward to making some adjustments," Reuckert said.

This spring voters approved an operating levy. On Monday the school board certified its tax levy of $2,451,242. Because of the approval of the levy, that represents an increase of 28 percent. If the operating levy hadn't been approved by voters, the overall levy would've increased 3.1 percent, Reuckert said.

The board will revise its budget in January to reflect the recent settlement with non-union staff. For the 2008-09 school year the increase (including salary and benefits) is 4.94 percent. For the 2009-10 school year the increase is 4.19 percent.

There are about 60 non-union employees, including custodians, cooks and aids.