School district eyes slight dip in preliminary budget

by Daniel McKay
Whitefish Pilot | July 22, 2020 1:00 AM

The Whitefish School District is looking at a slight decrease in its general fund budget for the 2020-2021 school year.

The Whitefish School Board last week reviewed a preliminary budget for the upcoming school year, which estimates a $15.062 million general fund budget between the elementary and high school districts, about a $300,000 decrease from last year.

This would be the first year the general fund has decreased from the previous school year in nearly a decade.

In the elementary district, the general fund preliminary budget amounts to about $10.031 million, with a shortfall of just under $100,000.

The budgeted total is the max budget authority the district can request, and a canceled voter-approved levy in the spring was set to address the shortfall.

District Business Director Lucie Shea said it didn’t make sense to ask voters for an increase in their contributions to the district during the pandemic, and if the shortfall still stands once the final budget rolls around, it will be covered by the district’s cash reserves, which amounts to about $1.4 million.

“Had we had that election, we were entitled to $92,400. But we said we can not have the election this year, it’s not the right thing to do,” Shea said. “A budget is a very fluid thing, and things may come out a little differently 12 months from now, and there may not be that much of a shortfall. If there is, we will use our cash reserves to cover that.”

The biggest changes in the budget comes from the hiring of additional paraeducators and an increase in professional development spending, which is outlined in the district’s strategic plan.

The professional development budget between both districts is set to increase from $60,000 to about $90,000.

At the high school district, the general fund is set at $5.03 million, about $280,000 less than last year, about 5.3% lower.

In terms of enrollment, both districts are expecting increases.

The elementary district number is set to rise from 1,355 to 1,393, and the high school enrollment from 539 to 594, putting the combined total at 1,987.

Shea said the increase and future increases by October could put the district in a position to receive a budget amendment from the Montana Office Of Public Instruction for additional funding.

“We will probably have an increase of enrollment as we enter the school year. Come October 5, which is our full count day, if that increase of enrollment is 4% or more, which is about 80 students, we could apply to OPI with a budget amendment for increased enrollment,” Shea said.

In that case, OPI sends back-pay funding to help cover the district’s costs related to the increase. The district had a similar amendment last year.

District-wide, the budget was prepared with a 3% increase on the base pay for certified and administrative staff, a 10% increase for certified staff who obtain national certification, an increase of $1.25 per hour for classified staff and an increase of 29% for unemployment insurance rate.

The budget also assumes a $190,480 increase in the elementary tuition permissive levy and a $3,448 increase in the high school tuition permissive levy.

For building reserve levies, the elementary district receives a boost of $7,900 while the high school levy increases by $3,700.

The district’s general fund is the chief operating fund for the district and is used for instructional programs and general operations. About 89% of the fund is spent on salaries and benefits for staff.

The board will vote on a final budget during its August meeting.