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Budget cuts solid, administration salaries frozen

By Paul Deaton
North Liberty Leader

IOWA CITY– Across Iowa, school districts are dealing with the end of one-time money provided by the federal government to support operations. The result has been dramatic budget cuts in school districts, including the Iowa City Community School District (ICCSD).
Protests from students, faculty and community members over a $3.6 million budget cut for the 2014-2015 fiscal year have gone largely unaddressed by the school board since the decision to cut the budget was made last January.
Instead, the school board took action against the bearers of bad news and froze central administration employee salaries at the May 13 school board meeting.
Last Tuesday’s school board meeting continued for more than five hours and included dozens of public comments, about 35 of which were addressed during the FY 2015 budget agenda item. Program cuts in orchestral music, German language, football, and others dominated the public comment period.
Substantial budget cuts are becoming a familiar theme in Iowa. The list of school districts implementing cuts includes Mason City, which is cutting $3.2 million; West Des Moines at $3.6 million; Newton with over $1 million in cuts; Columbus Junction at $832,000; Clinton with cuts of $900,000; and Johnston slicing $1.2 million out of its budget’ and other districts, large and small. While ICCSD may be unique among these scenarios, given that its overall budget increased over FY 2014 because of growing enrollment, the district still fell $3.6 million short of what was needed.
Superintendent Steve Murley reiterated that the school board recognized the need for district budget cuts to remain compliant with Iowa law on unspent balance of general funds at the end of each fiscal year. The district’s goal is to have an unspent balance of between five and 10 percent.
“We discussed (the FY 2015 budget) at length at the board work session in January,” said Murley. “We thought it pertinent to bring it back to you tonight to reaffirm the conversation that we had.”
The district’s unspent balance was expected to be 1.6 percent of the general fund at the end of FY 2014. When the school board reviewed unspent balance in January, it was determined that a $9 million budget cut would be required to return the unspent balance to the district desired five percent of general funds in FY 2015. At the time, Murley proposed $3.6 million in cuts, adopting a laddered approach to returning unspent balance to five percent by the end of FY 2019. The school board accepted his proposal.
Director Chris Lynch was the first board member to speak last week, saying any unspent balance below five percent of the general fund was unacceptable. However, he would accept a laddered approach to return unspent balance to at least five percent. Lynch preferred to develop a 10-year model for sustainable growth in the district, something he and others in the operations committee are doing.
“When we were talking about the facilities master plan, and different kinds of directions with the routine school work, we talked about the operating costs of new buildings and how that breaks into the budget,” said Director Patti Fields. “I don’t remember them saying in this year we would have to have this significant of cuts at the same time.”
“Maybe that plan or that time line would have changed if we had known that,” she added. “I look at that and think we didn’t have all of that information at the time. And yet I think it was known. That is a big concern.”
District CFO Craig Hansel refreshed the board members’ memories of how budget discussions transpired.
“When the stimulus dollars came into play we did hire nearly 30 staff members to reduce class sizes. The board was very supportive of taking those actions,” Hansel explained. “When the stimulus dollars fell off, because of our very rapid growth at the time, it was extremely difficult to reduce those and still maintain those class sizes. There was a discussion on the part of the board to allow the superintendent to spend down that unspent balance to soften that a little bit. We did that ,and now we find ourselves exactly where we thought we would be at this point in time and needing to make this budget cut,” he concluded.
“I know how we got here,” replied Fields. “I’m just saying it wasn’t part of that discussion. It was a long-range belief and those two things can’t be separate. Now we’ve got this plan for new buildings and staffing, all of these things, and yet we are cutting programs, we’re having these kinds of things come to us. It’s not clear to our community, it’s not clear to staff. I know how we got here, but that had to be a part of our conversation,” she concluded.
Even members of the public did not seem to accept the cuts as final. Forty people submitted comment forms related to the budget item last week. Board President Sally Hoelscher allowed everyone to speak, extending the meeting until about 11:25 p.m. Public comments included discussions of the German language, orchestral music, football and other programs, but in the end, only one budget action was taken.
During a discussion of a salary freeze, Lynch said, such a proposal would be more powerful if it came from the administration. As none was forthcoming, the board voted 5-2 to freeze the salaries of central office administrators next fiscal year, a largely symbolic gesture given the overall $141 million district school budget.
The next meeting of the ICCSD board of directors is scheduled on May 27 at 6 p.m.