The Blaine County School District board of trustees voted 5-0 Tuesday to approve a $79.5 million budget for the 2013-14 school year.
Approval came at the district’s annual budget hearing. The motion to approve was made by Trustee Kathryn Graves and seconded by Trustee Paul Bates.
Prior to the vote, all five board members strongly defended the budget, while four district patrons spoke against it, complaining that it was too high and needed trimming. District Business Manager Mike Chatterton said there are public “misconceptions” about the budget because of the way the state of Idaho requires the budget to be listed.
The $79.5 million budget is divided into two categories, with $55.6 million allocated to a General M&O Fund and $23.9 million in a category called All Other Funds.
The General M&O Fund is for operating expenses, while the All Other Funds category includes funding for construction, property or equipment purchases and for state and federal dollars for special programs such as reduced or free lunches and funding for some special education programs.
Several district patrons complained that the budget is about $5 million higher than the budget for the 2012-2013 school year, even though the student population has remained about the same.
Annie Weber told the board that many families are struggling economically in the Wood River Valley, in part because of property taxes that the district is collecting.
“I think you should consider what impact on people in our district this has,” Weber said. “I’m very concerned about the added costs in our budget.”
Pamela Plowman complained that the district’s “enormous, enormous budget” is significantly higher than those of Blaine County and municipalities in the county. She also said the school board doesn’t seem to “care about public input.”
Tom Richmond said the school board lacks expertise to effectively manage the district and suggested that professionals be recruited for the positions, even if that would require paying them a salary.
“Our school board serves without salary yet spends over half the county tax dollars,” Richmond said.
Barbara Browning complained that “there are areas of waste, duplication and unnecessary frills that can be eliminated without hurting our children’s education at all.”
“Please pass a motion to postpone your vote on this budget,” Browning said. “Send it back for substantial cuts, to below this year’s generous budget, and show everyone in the community that you are truly aware of their financial hardships and are doing your part to help.”
Chatterton explained that the budget is $5 million higher this year because of money the district has saved and set aside in what is called “unappropriated balances.” He said the state of Idaho requires that money in savings be listed in the budget even if it’s not the district’s intent to spend it in that budget year.
The fiscal 2014 budget shows unappropriated balances of $13.1 million, compared to unappropriated balances of $7.4 million for fiscal 2013.
“Those unappropriated balances, that’s excess money in the budget that will not be spent unless the board pulls it out of the unappropriated balances to be spent,” Chatterton said.
“There’s a lot of misconceptions here,” he said. “Our general fund budget is not any higher now, and in fact less than it was six years ago.”
Chatterton said the district has reduced operating expenses by offering an early retirement incentive package and by introducing a lower salary structure for teachers hired after Oct. 1, 2012.
School board members were adamant in their support of the budget prepared by Chatterton.
Board Chair Steve Guthrie said the budget is “driven by board goals.”
“I think the board has been happy with the staff’s work and the efforts they’ve made,” Guthrie said.
Board Vice Chair Don Nurge noted that the district has one of the lowest student-to-teacher ratios in Idaho.
“But there’s a cost for that,” Nurge said.
Trustee Shawn Bennion said the district has a goal of “educating the whole child, which may not be reflective in the test scores but may be reflective in life.”
He further noted that the district offers a multitude of programs to achieve district goals, and that requires additional expense.
“Where we want to go as a district is really reflected in the budget,” he said.
Trustee Bates said critics often make comparisons with how money is spent on education elsewhere in Idaho, but that the state overall is “incredibly stingy” when it comes to education.
“I think we should be proud that we have a solvent education system that is working,” Bates said. “I’m proud of what we do for our students. I disagree that we’re spending our money poorly.”