Harrison School Board wrestles with budget issues, sets community meetings

HARRISON – The Harrison School Board looked at some preliminary budget figures at their monthly meeting Monday night and no matter how they worked the number over, the board members couldn’t figure out how to avoid coming up short.

Superintendent Darren Strauch presented the budget to the board and citizens present at the meeting and stressed that all numbers are very preliminary at this point because the Montana Legislature is still wrestling with school funding issues.

“I can’t stress enough how preliminary this stuff is,” Strauch told the board members.

Harrison, like many schools around the state, is looking at budget shortfalls, as projections out of Helena are generally bleak. Though the final state budget and school funding bills are still up in the air and concrete numbers are still a ways off.

It’s been two years since Harrison has asked voters for a levy, Strauch said.

School budgets are pretty complex, but generally the state allows schools to have a general fund budget of only a certain size, based on several factors including – and maybe most importantly – student enrollment.

Harrison has consistently been conservative with their budget, said board member Linda Dyk. For the last several years its general fund has been below what the state has allowed.

That means the cutting now will be less than what it could have been, Dyk said.

Still, it doesn’t look to be easy, Strauch said, saying they’ll have to “trim the muscle.”

“Because all the fat’s gone out of this budget and has been for sometime,” he said.

Strauch presented the school board with two preliminary budgets, one with a pay freeze for school employees and one without the freeze. The projections on the pay freeze budget were about a $10,000 deficit; without the pay freeze the deficit could be $20,000.

If the school were to go to the voters for a levy to make up the short fall, the mill levy to make up the $10,000 deficit would raise taxes about $7.30 on a $100,000 home; to make up for the $20,000 deficit taxes on a $100,000 home would increase by $14.60 a year.

One of the things impacting the budget at Harrison is declining enrollment, which directly reduces the amount of money the state puts into the school’s general fund. In the last year, enrollment has dropped by nine students from 122 to 113.

“We would be doing okay if our enrollment was still up,” Dyk said.

The school board is planning two meetings with the public to explain the budget and answer questions. The first meeting will be March 31 at 7:30, after parent teacher conferences at the school. The second meeting will be at the Hollowtop Senior Center April 6 during lunch.

The point of the meetings will be to answer questions from the public and address their concerns, said school board chair, Todd Brennan.

In other news, the school board signed cooperative athletic agreements with Willow Creek School for boys and girls basketball and volleyball.

The volleyball cooperative agreement was revived after Willow Creek dropped it some years ago. The agreement should allow Harrison to have a junior varsity team for the first time since the old cooperative agreement was dropped.

The board also heard staff updates from teachers Kathleen Jorgenson and Linda Ehlers. Both teachers shared with the board different activities they’ve had in the past month in their classrooms and projects their students are working on. They each encouraged the board members to come to their classrooms.

The next board meeting will be April 7. The board will have to set the May 3 school election ballot at the meeting and could decide then whether or not to run a levy.

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