Amid leadership transition, SD2 works to get a handle on budget

2011-12-08T18:15:00Z 2011-12-08T22:30:30Z Amid leadership transition, SD2 works to get a handle on budgetBy ROB ROGERS Of The Gazette Staff The Billings Gazette
December 08, 2011 6:15 pm  • 

In some respects, Jack Copps is on familiar ground.

Copps, School District 2's interim superintendent, tackled some type of budget crisis nearly every year that he was head of the district from 2006 to 2010.

The challenge this time, he said, is trying to piece together the district's $100 million budget following Superintendent Keith Beeman's forced departure in October and planning for school spending cuts made by last year's state legislature.

One of the first tasks for Copps and central office staff was trying to determine how much the district had spent last year and what was left in the budget. 

Complicating the matter is the lack of a chief financial officer. The district's previous director of finance, Thomas Harper, a certified public accountant, left last spring to take over as finance director for Des Moines Public Schools in Iowa.

In his place, Beeman hired Josh Middleton, superintendent of Laurel Public Schools, to be SD2's assistant superintendent of finances and Patricia Hubbard to be director of business services. Neither is a CPA. Currently, the district's only CPA is board clerk Leo Hudetz.

In assessing the state of the budget, Copps said the district faces significant hurdles, but it's not all dire.

Growth in the district's elementary school has been strong this year, with 325 new students enrolled. That will translate into roughly $1.3 million for the district next year.

That will help cover roughly $800,000 that won't be coming from the state because of cuts made by the legislature.

Still, over last year, the district fell below its 5 percent budgetary reserve and would need an additional $1.33 million to get back up to that level.

The state requires no budgetary reserves for school districts, but banks like them because they're a good indicator of financial health. SD2 secured low-interest rates on the $12 million in federal bonds that voters approved last year because at the time the district had a 5 percent reserve.

Copps said building it back up will certainly take time and probably won't be the district's first priority.

Foremost in his mind is the crowding in the district's kindergarten through fourth-grade classrooms. The education and development that occurs at that age is of critical importance, Copps said. It's vital that overcrowding issues are addressed.

"That is going to be one of the clear focuses for us," he said.

Another of Copps' focuses will be looking closely at inefficiencies across the district. SD2's warehouse, which was originally designed to be self-sufficient, runs $300,000 in the red, he said.

Copps also indicated that he would be looking at inefficiencies at the central office at Lincoln Center.

"If there are administrative inefficiencies, we're going after them," he said.

Board chairwoman Teresa Stroebe said that was well within Copps' right as superintendent.

"I'm fine with Jack doing that because it's procedure, not policy," she said.

During the hiring process for the interim superintendent, trustees who had supported Beeman expressed concerns about Copps making changes to the management system that Beeman had put in place during his tenure.

Instead of nine department directors who reported directly to the superintendent, Beeman instituted a layered structure where department heads report to assistant superintendents who in turn reported to Beeman.

Creating that structure led to new administrative hirings and a handful of retirements and resignations. 

At the time, Beeman said the cost to the district was nominal. SD2 spent $90,000 more on administration at Lincoln Center but overall spent $21,000 less on administration districtwide than the year before.

But those estimates likely are wrong, Copps said. After going through the budget, he said the increases in administrative costs last year actually totaled roughly $400,000.

Also on the plate is bargaining new contracts with the district's three unions. Copps said he's feeling confident about that process moving forward.

"The bottom line is everyone has to understand we have to live within our means," he said.

He's hopeful the district will come together to find ways to do just that.

"In the end," he said, "our budgets are going to be balanced."

Contact Rob Rogers at rrogers@billingsgazette.com or 657-1231.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Follow The Billings Gazette

Popular Stories

Featured Businesses