Budget concerns, sharing resources topic of countywide school board meeting

HARRISON – School board members, district clerks and superintendents from around the county gathered Monday evening for the annual countywide school board meeting and the discussion focused on worries about budget shortfalls and ways to combine resources.

School districts around the county are facing budget shortfalls, but just how dire the situation will be is still uncertain as the 2011 Montana Legislature continues to wrestle with the state budget and school funding.

“If you’ve been to the legislature at all, that kind of all comes down to the last week,” said Doug Walsh, superintendent at Ennis.

Darren Strauch, superintendent at Harrison is figuring his school district will have about a $55,000 shortfall, but that could change depending on what happens at the legislature.

Kim Harding, superintendent in Sheridan, figures their budget will be about $100,000 short.

Besides looking for places to make cuts, the other way to account for the deficit is to go to voters for a mill levy. Districts are holding school board elections on May 3, but can wait to hold their mill levy elections until they get a better idea of their needs, which may be necessary if the legislature doesn’t settle on a budget by the end of the 90-day regular session, which started Jan. 3.

“We’ll most likely run ours (mill levy election) late,” Harding told the group.
Chad Johnson, superintendent at Twin Bridges said he expected his budget to be between $17,000 and $48,000 short.

Some of school districts are also beginning or planning to begin negotiations with teachers on contracts, which adds complications to the budgeting process.

“You’ve got to sit and see what happens here,” Walsh said.

The group discussed strategies for determining where in the budget to cut expenses.

“Cut as far away from kids as you possibly can, that’s the first rule,” Walsh said. “The problem is there’s not much money out there.”

However, that strategy only can go so far, said Linda Walter, district clerk in Sheridan.

“We’ve always cut as far away from the students as we could, but you can only do that for so long,” Walter said.

The group also discussed proposals to share resources between the districts to help cut costs.

The school districts in the Four Rivers Region of the state, which includes Madison, Park and Gallatin Counties, have been discussing different ideas and ways to share resources, Strauch said.

He presented the board members present with a survey from the Four Rivers Region that tries to gauge interest in sharing and consolidating resources.

“What’s nice is to be able to say as a district, as a county these are what our priorities are,” he said.

In Madison County, the challenge for sharing resources between districts is largely geographical, Strauch said. It might make more sense, for instance, if Harrison and Ennis School Districts worked with Gallatin County School Districts.

Sharing resources could mean everything from going in together to get a better price on copy paper or looking to combine forces for continuing education for teachers, said Harding.

The countywide school board meeting is always a good opportunity to learn about what other school districts are facing and how they are handling different issues, Strauch said after the meeting.

“We have such innovative ideas across all the schools in the county,” he said. “I think it’s always nice to have that other perspective, because we tend to operate in our self-contained little bubble here.”

The meeting was hosted by Harrison School District and included a dinner and dessert prepared by Mrs. Jackson’s consumer life class from Harrison High School.

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