Bigfork schools face $297,000 budget shortfall

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The Bigfork School District is looking at its biggest deficit in recent memory for its 2010-2011 budget — a shortfall of approximately $297,000.

“In my 21 years here, I have not seen a deficit this size,” Eda Taylor, the district’s business manager, told the school board last week, saying that in future years it may only be worse.

She said that shortfall couldn’t be made up by making many minor cuts. It likely will require major changes, Taylor said.

“The bottom line is there will be program and staff changes,” board chairwoman Maureen Averill said.

The elementary school will face a deficit of approximately $135,000 and the high school a deficit of $162,000. The biggest shortfall Averill could remember was $70,000 at the high school.

Bigfork trustees at this point are not considering a special levy request.

“At this time, I don’t see any interest on the board for a levy,” Superintendent Russ Kinzer said.

Averill expressed that sentiment at the March 10 board meeting.

“It would not be my desire to do that” levy, Averill said. “I think it would fail badly in this economy.”

To trim costs, the district is offering early retirement incentives to its certified teachers and non-certified staffers.

Approximately 21 certified teachers and eight support staffers are eligible for the early out.

Teachers and staffers opting to take early retirement are required to submit their resignations by March 26. Until then, district officials won’t have a firm idea what cuts may be before the board.

The looming school deficits are due to declines in state funding as well as enrollment.

In Bigfork, the high school population has continued to decline, but the elementary has appeared to stabilize and even went up slightly over last year. The high school’s average enrollment was around 309 last school year and dropped to 285 this year. The elementary school enrollment went up from 468 to 482.

The trend becomes more apparent over time. Ten years ago, the enrollments for the high school and elementary school were 377 and 550, respectively.

Kinzer said he did an enrollment projection study based on the 2000 census a few years back and found that the decline was largely due to a drop in school-age children nationally and statewide.

The census also showed, he said, that that population would begin to increase around 2015.

With the elementary school population increasing, that trend may have started sooner than expected. Kindergarten classes have grown by about 10 students for the past few years.

Economics also could be a factor. For those who work in Kalispell, the commute may be too costly and that may account for some relocation, Kinzer said.

Discussions about more specific ways to tackle the deficit through program and staff cuts will likely occur in April board meetings, Kinzer said.

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