GFPS looking at budget options to absorb projected shortfall

Great Falls Public Schools’ budget committee met Friday morning to review preliminary budget options for the upcoming fiscal year.

In March, the school board opted not to pursue a levy for operational funds and GFPS is projecting a nearly $1 million shortfall.

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The district is looking at different ways to address that shortfall, which include using reserve funds, vacancy savings, staff reductions and raising fees for athletics.

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Without additional funding, the pre-school program is looking at staff reductions, fewer field trips and other cost cutting measures.

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Dale Lambert, student services director, walked the committee through some options for cutting 2.5 to 3 staff positions and having other staff absorb some duties.

Grant funding for the programs has been diminishing as costs have been rising.

Lambert cutting the three positions wouldn’t be ideal, but would buffer additional cuts in next year’s budget.

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“We face a tough 2020,” he said.

Trustee Jeff Gray said that if they’re trying to preserve the preschool program, steeper cuts this year might help the district get a few more years out of the funding.

“These cuts that we’re making now and the cuts we’ve been making,” hurt students, Gray said.

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Trustee Kim Skornogoski said, “I passionately believe in this program. I just want the work to go on as long as possible.”

She said through her work with United Way and the Graduation Matters program, she’d seen data that indicated the preschool programs improved graduation rates and better prepared students.

Superintendent Tammy Lacey said that the writing is on the wall that the program isn’t sustainable with existing fund sources.

GFPS looking at options to address projected budget shortfall

“Maybe we need to look at this as a community type of program that needs to be funded in a different way,” Lacey said.

Health insurance increases will be a factor in rising costs, as will raises and custodial increases for the new Giant Springs school and expanded C.M. Russell High.

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The projected difference in expenses to revenues is $972,454, according to GFPS.

The district is in the preliminary stage of developing the budget and the options discussed Friday are not in anyway firm.

To absorb the shortfall, the district is currently looking at using $700,000 from reserves; $192,000 in cost savings; $65,000 in staff reductions; and $15,000 in revenue.

“That’s a funding cliff for next year,” Lacey said of using reserves to shore up the operational shortfall.

To generate revenue, the district is looking at options for increasing athletic fees, which haven’t been increased since 1995, Lacey said.

That would come to the board as an action item.

Skornogoski said it might be worth looking at a plan to increase those fees incrementally than all at once.

Decisions on staff reductions will likely be based on the district’s ability to fill vacancies.

Currently, the district is trying to fill three industrial technology teacher positions; three elementary art teachers; one German teacher; and six special education teachers.

“We’re trying to fill them, but the reality is if we can’t recruit them,” Lacey said, they may remain vacant and if so, it could reduce the amount of reserves needed to offset the shortfall.

Board chair Jan Cahill said it’s difficult to recruit teachers now and with “mediocre pay” and continued cuts, new teachers might not see GFPS as a good option.

Lacey and board members said fewer people are going into education.

Gray said the positions they’re trying to fill in industrial technology and art are the areas that the community is saying are needed to keep kids in Great Falls with good careers.

He said he’s troubled by the thought of using reserves and making the fiscal cliff higher next year.

Lacey said the district is trying not to make staff reductions since they’ve cut 104 staff positions over the last decade and it impacts students.

Lacey said if they use the $700,000 in reserves, the district will start next year’s budget process that much in the hole.

“We’ve made so many cuts and the kids are feeling it,” Skornogoski said. “This is a gamble.”

GFPS staff will continue making adjustments to balance the budget and present to the board in August.

The salary report is scheduled for Aug. 5; insurance and the initial budget presentation is scheduled for Aug. 19 and a special meeting for budget approval is scheduled for Aug. 22.