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Benson Schools to find budget reductions

BENSON -- The administration of Benson Public Schools will examine its budget for possible reductions after reporting a preliminary budget deficit of $418,000 for the 2009-10 school year.

Superintendent Lee Westrum said Wednesday the Benson School Board directed him to look for budget cut suggestions in the 2009-10 budget after informing the board of the district's preliminary budget deficit for next school year.

Westrum said declining enrollment plays a big part in Benson's dismal "in progress budget" as a loss of state funding derived from enrollment figures is expected. He said the natural increase in expenses and the district's expectation of no new revenue from the state government also play roles in the projected budget deficit.

"Those three factors are what are really driving it right now," Westrum said about the budget deficit.

The district administration will create a list of budget reductions that will amount to the $418,000 deficit, Westrum said. It is highly unlikely the School Board would introduce all listed, Westrum said, because the district does have a healthy undesignated reserves fund of more than $2 million.

"At the budget committee and board level, that doesn't mean we're going to make $418,000 worth of cuts," Westrum said. "We might decide to cut a certain number and deficit spend some of that."

Discussions about deficit spending segued into talks about the appropriate monetary level of a district fund balance, Westrum said. The discussion was timely, he said, because state government has been debating withholding more funding from public education during the 2009-10 school year.

Westrum said the state government is pondering an increase in "an accounting procedure to delay the distribution of funds to help balance the (state) budget," Westrum said. If a district has a healthy fund balance, Westrum said, the procedure would mean little. But to any school district without a healthy fund balance, he said, the procedure forces the district to borrow money to cover the district payroll and to pay the bills during the delay in distribution.

"Those are all things that we have to wrestle with," Westrum said. "And in the next couple board meetings, those will be coming back up again."

Westrum said the administration plans to have a list of possible budget reductions prepared by the School Board's March 2 meeting.

In other district news:

? The district still waits to receive the $80,000 grant the U.S. Department of Labor awarded to Benson last month. The grant will go toward construction of a renewable energies lab for Benson High School.

? The district will open the bidding process Feb. 27 for the high school swimming pool renovation project. "Hopefully we'll get some good bids," Westrum said. "We'd love to come in under our estimates."