Educating without a net

Tucked into pages of numbers outlining Meridian School District’s  $178.7 million school budget for next year is a worrisome stat: By the 2014-2015 school year, Meridian District’s reserve fund could be wiped out.

In recent years, Meridian siphoned off its reserve — what was as high as $18 million — to keep the district running as close to normal as it could while lawmakers cut education support in the midst of the recession. Even at that, Meridian had to cut 14 days out of the school calendar. (It has added back nine days of classroom time.)

Board approval of next year’s budget shrinks the reserve fund to about $1.6 million.

Unlike Boise School District, Meridian doesn’t have a property tax levy that automatically draws dollars into the school’s general fund as property values increase.

Without more help from the state, taxpayers voting for money school money or growth in the form of more students — which generates more state revenue — the Meridian district would blow through that $1.6 million reserve and more in 2014-2015.

That leaves Meridian schools with a series of unpopular choices. With 90 percent of the budget tied up in people, the district could have to cut staff, reduce benefits or increase furlough days to even out the numbers in 2014-2015.

So if the district knows the cliff is coming, why aren’t administrators making preparations now to soften the blow?

“We’ve cut huge amounts,” said Linda Clark, Meridian School District superintendent.

The district is already hiring 118 fewer teachers than the roughly 1,750 allotted by the state. Its administrator count is 18 below the state’s allocation.

Meridian is not putting money into content — materials such as text books and other learning programs.

Against this, the Meridian Education Association has asked for a 1.67 percent pay increase.

“We have not reached an agreement,” Clark said.

And salary increases based on length of service — which were partially funded by the state for next year — will cost the district nearly $1 million out of its own pocket, with about the same state appropriation it has been receiving.

Moreover, the district’s supplemental levy, which raises about $14 million, expires next year. School officials will have to decide whether to ask voters for another supplemental and whether to ask voters for an increase.

“It is very challenging,” Clark said.


Posted in In The Classroom