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School budget scene changing daily

A preliminary budget for the 2003-04 school year has been set for the Somerset schools, but the possibilities are changing daily.

Rumors are flowing fast and furious out of the state capitol and school districts around the state are reacting to each, planning for every possibility. Schools are facing budget shortfalls, they just don't know how much the shortages will be.

Somerset district administrator Char Gearing and financial officer Jan Carlson said they are dealing with every possibility as they prepare for next year's school budget.

At the May board of education meeting, a preliminary budget of $10.245 million was approved. That's an increase of 5.3 percent over the budget of $9.725 million for the current school year.

Gearing and Carlson said the district is currently planning for a $90,000 shortfall but said that could easily grow much higher, depending upon concessions that are made in the final state budget. One projection is already clear. They are expecting to receive $300,000 less in general aids from the state for the upcoming school year.

The school already knows that the TEACH grant money won't be in place next year. That paid for a three-fifths position in technology support in the district.

Two factors in the educational budget formula that benefit growing schools are still being debated. If those factors are eliminated, it will mean much of the flexibility in the Somerset school budget will be gone.

Gearing said flatly that there will be no teacher layoffs this year in Somerset. Adding staff however may be difficult. That is complicated by the fact that two grade levels, kindergarten and seventh grade, are seeing exceptional rates of growth.

The growth in the district puts Somerset in a rare position in the state. While many districts are cutting staff to deal with the budget shortfall, Gearing said cutting staff in a growing district like Somerset would be an absolute last resort.

Gearing laid out a list of possibilities for cuts if the school needs to make emergency cuts. General supplies would be reduced and out of district field trips would be cut. Activity fees, book fees and driver's education fees all could be altered. Busing for summer school could also be cut, though that would not be done for this year's summer school.

With sidewalks being built around the village of Somerset this summer, the district will study whether more students will be able to walk to school. If enough students can walk to school where a bus route could be cut, it would save the district at least $25,000.

The bulk of the increase in the district budget comes in three areas: staff benefits, utilities, and contracted services like food, custodial and transportation. Gearing said staff insurance costs are expected to increase another 17-18 percent this year.

To find ways to save money, Gearing said all services the school receives will be put out for bids each time the contract comes up, to see if competitive bidding can benefit the district.

The final school district budget will be set at the district's annual meeting in September. The mill rate won't be officially set until October, when the school board sets the tax levy for the year.

Dave Newman
Dave Newman has been the sports editor at the New Richmond News since 1988. He has covered the action in the Middle Border Conference, Dunn-St. Croix Conference and Big Rivers Conference for nearly 30 years.
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