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School district presents neutral budget

This year’s budget message is a far cry from last year’s when St. Helens School District Superintendent Mark Davalos called the 2012-13 budget’s cuts and reductions a sign of the times and “nothing that we’re proud of.”

This year’s proposed budget is “neutral,” Davalos said. The school district is bringing back several days that were cut last year, juggling increases to the Public Employee Retirement System (PERS) fund and attempting to stabilize larger class sizes.

The district noted a beginning fund balance of $2.85 million, $450,000 greater than 2011-12’s beginning balance. The beginning fund balance in 2012-13 was also more than expected, but still only represented little more than 2 percent of the district’s General Fund budget.

In a recently completed budget message introducing the 2013-14 budget document, Davalos wrote that while the state of Oregon has hinted schools might receive more dollars, declining enrollment and the PERS increase “all but neutralize any sense of increase.” Student transportation costs have also increased.

Still, while the school district might not be rocketing forward on a fat budget, it is no longer falling behind.

“Maybe we’ve finally hit bottom and all we can do is go up,” Davalos said about the outlook for next year.

Last year, the school district cut eight days from its calendar, the first time it had ever done such a thing. When a cut day rolled around during the school year, a number of teachers and some students took to the street corners, holding signs and protesting the cuts. But this year, the district has only proposed cutting six days.

“We promised them (parents, teachers and staff) that if we had the money, we’d bring back the days,” said Janine Salisbury, the district’s business manager. “The kids need the instruction time.”

“I’m looking at it as incremental growth,” Davalos said. Instead of taking the state at its word that more funding could become available, Davalos and Salisbury are planning for what is known and building back the district slowly.

Overall, Davalos is optimistic.

“This whole crisis of having to lay off a number of teachers and classified staff every year maybe has stopped,” he said. “People who have a job now can better rely on having a job next year.”

As the proposed budget moves forward through a series of Budget Committee meetings, which began April 18, Davalos said, “I’m hoping they get a sense of relief that the crisis is over.”

For more information, visit the school district’s website at www.sthelens.k12.or.us.