SD2 works to balance forecasts with finances

2014-04-13T00:15:00Z SD2 works to balance forecasts with financesBy ROB ROGERS rrogers@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

School District 2 needs $5.6 million by 2018 to afford running the two new middle schools that it plans to build over the next three years.

To gain those savings, the district plans to shave 1 percent from its overall budget each year for the next five years, which translates to just over $1.1 million a year.

“It’s so critical that we find these (savings),” said Leo Hudetz, SD2’s chief financial officer. “We feel good about achieving that this year.”

The district put the plan in place last fall and by the end of March has saved nearly $922,000. The elementary school district is 94 percent to reaching its goal for the savings. The high school district, at 66 percent, still has some ground to cover.

Hudetz and Superintendent Terry Bouck are confident the district will hit the mark by July, the end of SD2’s fiscal year.

Cutting back

The savings have come from staffing positions more efficiently and cutting back on operational costs.

Just being smart with utilities and maintenance has saved SD2 $202,000 this year. Building administrators also have cut back on their supply budgets, saving $177,000.

The district is working to keep the cuts as far from students as possible, Hudetz said.

The district generates ideas of where to make cuts from meeting with building administrators every few months. Many of the ideas come from the principals themselves.

“They’re on the field,” Hudetz said. “They know what’s doable.”

Having the principals generate ideas also means they’re more likely to become invested in the process, he said.

Still, current budget conditions have made finding places to cut back difficult. While enrollment in the district has continued to climb, enrollment for this school year came in lower than projected, meaning the district got less funding from the state than it had planned for.

District leaders are anticipating that enrollment figures for the coming school year will rebound. The successful passage of a $122-million bond last fall left many in the community feeling a confidence and enthusiasm in SD2 that hasn’t always existed.

“There’s genuine excitement,” Hudetz said.

Drawing in students

The promise of new middle schools, remodeled elementary schools and smaller classrooms will likely draw in students, he said.

Adding to the financial pressure, the district also had a new contract to negotiate with its teachers’ union this spring. The Billings Education Association negotiated with district leaders for three weeks last month and struck a deal last week, agreeing to a 2 percent raise for members and a two-year contract.

Association members will vote on the deal later this week. If they approve, the board will ratify the contract later this month.

Scott McCulloch, BEA president, said he and the association were keenly aware as they entered negotiations of the district’s need to save operational funds for the two new middle schools.

“You have to look at the needs of the association, of the members and balance it with the broader needs of the district,” he said.

And in many ways, the needs of the two groups are tightly linked. The gains brought to the district by the successful passage of November’s bond is something the teaching community has hoped to see for a long time.

“This is exciting stuff for teachers,” McCulloch said.

Classrooms will be less crowded and the two new middle schools will significantly reconfigure post-elementary education in the district, as sixth-graders move out of the elementary schools and into the middle schools. The renovations at many of the elementary schools — especially Broadwater and McKinley — mean better teaching conditions.

However, teachers are still employees and it’s important for SD2 leaders to show its employees in a tangible way that they have value, McCulloch said.

He called the 2 percent raise “a very good start.”

Hudetz, who sat in on negotiations, agreed and said the two-year contract will help give the district a bit of stability as it forecasts its finances for the coming years and works to save up to run the two new middle schools.

“We believe it’s something we can afford,” he said.

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

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