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SPOTLIGHT
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Budget concerns

Published on -3/12/2014, 2:01 PM

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Hays USD 489 has money issues. Approximately $1.3 million worth of issues, and that's just for this year. Next year promises a repeat deficit of the same amount.

If total enrollment had increased by the 90 students as had been budgeted for this year, the district would be in much better shape. Instead, enrollment went down for the third straight year, dropping 62. When considering the effect on the general and supplemental funds, that swing amounted to almost $736,000 less from the state than expected.

Budget problems didn't end there. The employer match for the 403(b) retirement plan didn't even make it into the budget. Nor did any money for seventh-grade sports. Or even the full amount of raises that already had been negotiated by that point. Throw into the mix an unanticipated increase in workers compensation premiums and sick leave buyouts, and it's easy to see how the district got into the current situation. And, perhaps, offer a glimpse into part of why the top two administrators who assembled the budget no longer are employed here.

Regardless of how the district arrived at this point, the financial ship needs righting. State law simply doesn't allow for districts to end the year with negative balances in their general funds.

Whether he was expecting this particular task, new Superintendent Dean Katt is taking it on. Working with the board of education, multiple efforts are in play. Overtime has been cut, energy savings are being looked at, elective purchases have been frozen -- staff at all levels is being encouraged to be frugal. The contingency reserve balance will be spent down, drivers education money will be carried over, and a significant transfer to the Hays West Central Kansas Special Education Cooperative will be delayed until the next school year starts.

This will get the district through the year. That's the good news.

The bad news is the upcoming school year. The special education transfer will need to be made up, health insurance costs are expected to increase, utilities are going up, and all the needed items that didn't get budgeted this year will be next year.

"We anticipate being short $1.3 million at this point," Katt said.

While the deficit represents merely 2.5 percent of the district's entire budget, expense reductions are going to be difficult. There is not a whole lot of discretionary spending contained in the approximately $50 million budget.

We would offer that had the Kansas Legislature and governor been interested in honoring the funding levels they established and wrote into law, USD 489 would not be experiencing a fiscal crisis. Responding to a Supreme Court finding they weren't adequately supporting K-12 public education in 2006, lawmakers had promised to increase gradually the base state aid per pupil to $4,492. They never got there. Aid peaked at $4,400 in 2009 and has dropped to $3,838.

If the Hays district was paid $4,492 in BSAPP this school year, there would have been an additional $2.9 million to run operations. But legislators were more interested in giving tax breaks to corporations and wealthy individuals, and now don't have the money to provide the suitable education required by the Kansas Constitution.

As the Supreme Court once again ruled against the Legislature last week, those dollars still could emerge. But USD 489 can't hold its breath that Topeka will honor its obligation. Not in the current political climate.

Instead, Katt and the board must find $1.3 million in reductions for next year's budget. The angst running rampant at all the schools is understandable. Every announcement and decision is being scrutinized and second-guessed, which also is to be expected.

We would suggest staff and the community give the new superintendent and the board an opportunity to develop an entire plan before being too critical. Katt's mettle certainly is being put to the test at an early point is his tenure here. It has the potential to define his career. As such, he should be given leeway to present a solution that is best for the entire district.

Until that plan is finalized, people eager to do something should remind area legislators of the problems their broken promises have created. The desired glide-path to zero income taxes is having significant and unnecessary consequences.

Editorial by Patrick Lowry

plowry@dailynews.net

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