The North Branch School Board faced a packed house March 8 for its budget adjustments action. There were 40 or so in the Board Room audience as the School Board recorded a split vote implementing $1.5 million in reductions to balance the 2018-2019 budget.
The district forecasts revenues at $30.8 million and expenditures at $32 million.
Adjustments authorized include staff cuts in all schools, in distance learning and administration. The process of contracting bus services also continues under the action.
Along with balancing its budget, North Branch must beef-up its fund balance going into the following year and beyond. Without this adjustment North Branch was projecting to enter 2019-2020 with a mere $22,000 in the bank.
Of the 4-2 vote, the no votes were from Board members Cathie Pascavage and Sarah Grovender.
Pascavage held out hope to find more budget reduction options, possibly through utilizing the “ThoughtExchange” software public input tool. Grovender did not explain her vote.
Board Chair Kirby Ekstrom, Darryl Goebel and Tim MacMillan all offered comments on the fact the Board can’t just “find” $1.5 million in other places in the budget to cut. Mindy Michaud did not comment on voting with the majority.
The action also means the transportation department will continue to be reviewed for contracted bus service from a private provider, because the division has been in the red, and the district can not find enough bus drivers to hire. There are now 13 routes being covered by drivers from other district transportation services. Busing is $400,000 in the red for its budgeted FY 2018-2019 expenses as it is.
Goebel, who has also driven bus for the district, told the roomfull of mainly aggrieved bus drivers, “How far can we kick this down the road?”
MacMillan put the ball back in the audience’s court observing that the transportation staff have been aware of problems (lack of drivers) and “...my uderstanding is there haven’t been any new applications.” A couple people shouted back, “Liar!”
The Teamsters union was represented by a few speaker/members, including Robert Casper, from St Paul. He called privatizing “a race to the bottom.”
The union is poised to help if somebody would be willing to talk about finding “a better way” other than contracting out transportation, he added. There was a semitrailer rig parked outside the Board Room emblazoned with Teamsters’ logo artwork and slogans.
Former longtime school board member Rick Olseen, rural Harris, suggested looking into “double routes” and job combinations within the district, so bus drivers could work fulltime instead of just a few hours a day.
He asked for a task force to come together and look for ways to retain in-district busing services.
The vote was preceded by nearly an hour of people speaking, opposed to the budget reduction action before the Board. Several, including students, also addressed cutting on-site German class and making it an interactive television course, eliminating a 19-year program taught by Frau Swenson.
Parent, Ursula Scheele, who graduated from North Branch, said she is “angry” her kids have known North Branch schools only under budget reduction mode.
It was difficult to explain to many who brought up the referendum that the district passed last year, why that money can’t go to operations.
Voters provided $60-plus million for new construction and to address deferred repairs, security enhancements, athletic facility needs, roofing and maintenance. The referendum authorized use of that money ONLY for building and capital expenses.
Superintendent Deb Henton said state law forbids using any referendum revenues for personnel and operating costs. (School districts in Minnesota must maintain multiple “funds” dedicated to everything from Food Service to Community Education, Debt Service to Special Education, etc and they can’t be mixed and mingled. )
As for the transportation division assets-- the district will negotiate with whatever provider is chosen for the contract. The for-profit provider status would mean the bus barn site would pay taxes, estimated at $24,000 annually the audience heard.
Henton said the contract negotiations will address phased-in bus sales, equipment transfers and other aspects of divesting of the division. Details still to be worked out, she added.