School Board eyes savings fund to avoid cuts

BY LUKE VOELZ | APRIL 26, 2011 7:20 AM

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The majority of Iowa City School Board members said Monday they'd support using reserve-fund money to avoid cutting 22 full-time-equivalent positions for the upcoming school year.

The board will likely vote on the matter at tonight's meeting.

At Monday's work session, District Superintendent Steve Murley recommended reducing the amount of the general fund officials move to a savings fund from 5 percent to 3 percent. That 2 percent difference would reduce the general-fund deficit from $6.8 million to $4.3 million.

Murley said obtaining this money would allow the board more time to look into generating funds through other means, such as energy conservation and community and state input.

District officials had intended to cut 22 positions —12 at the high-school level and 10 at elementary. The School Board must make a decision and notify teachers by April 30.

"[Withdrawing from the reserve] certainly provides opportunities in terms of time until we start seeing efficiencies in there," he said.

However, he said, the district would also be required to return to a 5 percent reserve balance for the 2012-13 school year, meaning the board would have to recover the spent reserve money.

"I favor reducing the percentage we have in our reserve fund," board member Sarah Swisher said. "It clearly is a reflection of the times [the 5 percent level was established], and as much as we can put it as a goal to meet it, some years, there are some things that will be different. This seems to be one of those years."

However, board member Gayle Klouda noted the district has historically spent less money than initially predicted, recalling that the spending projections for 2010 was a loss of more than $1 million but ended up with an $8 million surplus. Given this tendency, she said, the board may want to avoid cutting reserve funding, if possible, as the state would be required to take over district spending if the reserve was completely spent.

"At all costs, we don't want to get to 0 [percent reserve funding,]" she said. "We know [budget] numbers aren't going to be accurate, so we have to fly as low as we can safely fly. We may find out [budget] projections are low-ball, and we may have more money at year's end than we projected."

Board member Mike Cooper said if the Legislature passes a 0 percent allowable growth rate, the board will still need funding to accommodate the increasing cost of materials in for the upcoming school year.

"If we really are at 0 percent allowable growth, the price of gas, energy, and utilities will still be going up," he said. "Where are we going to get money to pay for that? We're flirting at putting ourselves at a negative balance."

Freezing both administrative salaries and administrative position hiring was also an option, said board Vice President Tuyet Dorau.

"We should lead by example at the administrative level as well, if that's what we're going to ask of our classrooms," she said.

Cooper said district administrative expenditures were low enough. He presented the board with statistics from the Iowa Department of Education, which show total non-teacher expenditures in the Iowa City district were the lowest of the eight Iowa school districts in the United Education Network.

"[The Central Administrative Office] is an easy thing to attack, because it appears like overhead," Cooper said. "It's a $150 million operation. It takes people to run."

The board will discuss these options Tuesday, under the shadow of West and City High School students, who plan to protest the proposed staff cuts. West High sophomore Nick Pearce estimated more than 120 students will attend.

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