District looks to $2 million shortfall

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Chipping away at an $819,000 budget shortfall has been a challenge for school officials in the Kalispell district. But the deficit Kalispell Public Schools anticipates in 2011-12 make this year’s budget woes seem almost minor.

District clerk Todd Watkins hasn’t had much opportunity to dwell on the 2011-12 budget. The 2010-11 budget, which trustees approved Tuesday night, has taken most of his time.

But Watkins’ early numbers suggest that Kalispell Public Schools can expect a $2 million deficit.

The elementary district is bracing for a $962,485 shortfall, according to Watkins’ figures. The high school deficit will be about $994,289, bringing the total deficit to well over $1.9 million.

But those numbers were prepared in May, and Watkins said Tuesday that the 2011-12 deficit could be more than $2 million.

Through extensive cuts in a variety of areas, Kalispell school officials were able to make the necessary $216,000 reductions in the high school district and $603,000 in the elementary district to balance the 2010-11 general fund budget. Those cuts included not replacing a few positions but didn’t require many layoffs.

The 2011-12 budget will be a very different story.

About 90 percent of this year’s elementary budget and 84 percent of the high school budget goes to salaries and benefits. When so much of the budget is tied up in staff, layoffs next year likely will be unavoidable.

Depending on whether unions in the district request and receive pay raises, the anticipated deficit could climb even higher, Watkins said. He recommends freezing wages to prevent that.

Kalispell’s 2011-12 deficit also depends on what the state Legislature does when it convenes in January. School officials aren’t expecting a huge influx of cash from the state.

In 2009, state lawmakers used one-time-only federal stimulus money to meet a promised 3 percent increase in school funding. The state promised another 3 percent increase in the 2010-11 school year, but without additional stimulus money, that raise had to come from state coffers.

Kalispell trustees earlier this month discussed the possibility of significant reductions in 2011-12 school funding because of anticipated shortfalls in the state budget. Depending on the size of those reductions, Kalispell schools might lose levy authority.

According to Watkins’ projections, the district could request a nearly $591,000 elementary levy in May 2011. The high school district could ask for $617,000.

But that levy authority could be eliminated if the state reduces school funding so much that Kalispell’s budget is higher than its state-mandated cap.

If that happens, school officials will have to make even more cuts than they already anticipate making in 2011-12 to get under cap, or trustees will have to ask voters for permission to operate above cap.

Trustees agreed earlier this month that the district needs to have a clear sense of its goals and direction to help school officials begin paring down the budget.

“As a board, we need to have a conversation about where do we want to go,” trustee Alice Ritzman said. “We need to have a concrete direction before Todd [Watkins] spends hours and hours of [his] time” poring over the budget, looking for ways to cut back.

Trustee Ivan Lorentzen agreed, saying the district needs to have a clear philosophy trustees and school officials can follow. But even clear guidelines won’t spare the district the pain next year’s budget will bring, he said.

“There are things we’re not going to be able to do any more,” he said. “I think we’re going to have to figure out how to do education very differently from [how] we’ve been doing it. I don’t know what that might look like yet.”

Next year’s budget cuts could have gone even deeper if Kalispell schools hadn’t this spring offered teachers incentive to retire at the end of June. The early retirement incentive didn’t alleviate pressure on the 2010-11 budget, but it will have significant savings in 2011-12.

Twenty-five teachers took the offer. In their retirements, the district lost 661 years of education experience — but it will save close to $500,000 next year, Watkins said.

Reporter Kristi Albertson may be reached at 758-4438 or at kalbertson@dailyinterlake.com.

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