It was almost a year ago to the day that we were making decisions regarding a levy - many months before the state required us to do so. At that time we made the best decisions we could based on what we knew then. What made this planning so difficult was that not all the variables related to the budget were known. On a $100 million budget, being off by even just three or four percent could swing the budget by as much as $3 or $4 million.
What we did know was that we had been facing budget issues for many years and that a positive fund balance, although quickly disappearing, had allowed us to protect and maintain many programs during these times. We also knew that this fund balance was no longer available, that enrollment was continuing to decline and that we would not be able to depend on State aid alone to solve our budget challenges. With a levy about to expire, we knew we needed to reinvest. And we knew that our community needed to know exactly what it was that they were investing in.
You may recall the levy dollars were promised to replace the existing expiring levy, help address the continued shortfall, provide new programs through Bridge to Excellence (BtE) and make security enhancements. Within the BtE plan, notable promises were to add art and world languages in the elementary schools, expand access to technology devices across all grade levels and minimize future reductions in other areas.
I can tell you that we are on track with these promises. Elementary students will have art next year, and access to technology is expanding. More time is being spent studying how to best introduce world languages for the 2015-2016 school year. And all school buildings will have secure entrances completed before the start of next school year. Even more exciting is the behind the scenes work taking place to provide support and coaching to our teachers, and to bring the best and most current curriculum to our students. Though less glamorous, it is this work that will have the greatest impact on our students in the coming years.
What is causing concern among some in our community, however, is a recent school board decision to increase class size by one student districtwide to help address our budget deficit for next year. This may seem like a broken levy promise, and yet, it's not so simple. We said all along that the levy would not fix our budget problem, and cuts would be necessary. If the levy had not passed, this increase in class size would have been in the range of 6-8 students. An increase of one student should have minimal impact, in a perfect world. The problem is the numbers don't divide equally across our schools. Every school building, grade level and classrooms within buildings have different increases and decreases in the number of students each school year. This results in a few classes, about nine percent, that are currently above the set ranges while others are at or even below the ranges.
Every year at this time when staffing plans are being made there are classes above and below these ranges that have been set by district procedures. In response, what is typically done – because student numbers go up and down all spring and summer into the next school year – is that they are monitored closely and then adjustments, such as adding teachers or other solutions, are put into action right before the school year starts. This timing is important, and more so this year with fewer available resources, so that a teacher is not hired for a classroom where he/she may not be needed later.
What is different this year is that the projected class sizes were shared at a public board meeting. I am not trying to minimize any concerns for students and parents, however, I think it is important to share that at this time of year this is not unusual. Administrators are working hard on potential solutions, and when the student numbers are finalized over the summer these issues will be addressed.
As we work to solve these issues for next year, we're also considering how to address this for the future. We are a district made for 10,000 students, yet we now have 8,500 students with continued declining enrollment on the way. We are also addressing budget issues by having a balanced budget in place for next year, the first in many years. We are also having conversation around our facilities and beginning to address possible budget issues for 2015-2016, much earlier than we have in the past.
Trust requires both a willingness for people to believe and an opportunity for leaders to match their words with action. Knowing what we know now, perhaps some of our levy promises might be different. That rests solely on my shoulders as your school superintendent. I am confident, however, that the people around me can and will fulfill the levy promises and continue to solve class size issues as they have in the past. Providing an opportunity to do so is the first step in developing trust.