Friday, June 5, 2009

Public tunes in to schools budget

District plans $57.5 million in classroom costs next year

Express Staff Writer

What was planned as a routine annual budget workshop turned into a nearly four-hour question-and-answer session Tuesday, as the public showed atypical interest in the Blaine County School District's proposed budget for the 2009-2010 school year.

In past years, the only attendees for the annual budget briefing have typically been members of the school board and district administrators. This year, more than a dozen members of the general public quizzed district officials on subjects ranging from the use of blackboards compared to electronic boards to the costs of paying for students in far southern Blaine County to attend school in Minidoka County.

District Business Manager Mike Chatterton, with the support of Assistant Superintendent Lonnie Barber, school board Chairwoman Alex Sundali and other school board members, patiently fielded question after question as the meeting wore on.

"We always want public involvement," Chatterton said Wednesday. "I want to be completely transparent. I don't want to be criticized for not answering anyone's questions."

Sundali said Wednesday that the public turnout was unusual for a budget workshop.

"We think the evening went well," Sundali said. "We were very happy to have the public. Mike Chatterton did an excellent job of explaining to the public next year's budget."

The board of trustees will accept formal public comment on the proposed budget at the beginning of its regular monthly meeting on Tuesday, June 9. The budget hearing is scheduled to begin at 6:30 p.m. at the district office at 118 West Bullion St. in Hailey. At the conclusion of the hearing, the school board is expected to approve the budget.

Sundali said the board will allow about three minutes of comment per person.

The school district is proposing a general fund budget of $57.5 million for next year. The general fund is described as money for educating students and is referred to as "classroom" costs.

The total budget is closer to $74 million. The money not included in the general fund budget is allocated in various funds for construction costs, bond and interest payments, and miscellaneous federal and state supplement programs.

For revenue, the district anticipates receiving about $38.4 million from property tax levies, $15.7 million from the state of Idaho, and $2.3 million in federal funding. Another $3.5 million is expected from miscellaneous sources such as lunch payments and interest income. The district plans to carry over more than $14 million from the 2008-2009 school year for next year's budget.

The proposed budget is about $1.2 million larger than last year's budget of $72.8 million.

Chatterton said the district was able to absorb a state funding cut of about $ 1 million by using carry-over funds from this year.

Chatterton said the district won't issue any layoffs next year, unlike some school districts that are more reliant on state funding and will have to cut staff.

Trustee-elect Paul Bates, who defeated Sundali in school board elections last month, said public turnout at the budget workshop marks a "beginning of the process by which the public becomes more integrated in the process."

Bates, who attended the workshop, campaigned on the issue of increased public involvement in the school district's decision-making processes. Several of the workshop attendees were his supporters who are helping him get a better understanding of how the school district determines its budget.

Bates and trustee-elect Steve Guthrie, who defeated incumbent Kim Nilsen last month, will take their positions on the board on July 14.

"The public is getting more interested, and one of the reasons they're getting more interested is because now they believe they will have someone who will listen to them," Bates said.

Nonetheless, Bates was complimentary of the way the district handled the large number of questions at the workshop.

"I think the district made an effort to reach out to the public and the public responded," he said. "I feel that we've been a long time the other way. I think that the district, at least in people's perceptions, has in the past left the public out of it."

Terry Smith:

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