Budget committee adds to reserves to build sustainability

Emerging from a time of lean budgets and difficult choices, the West Linn-Wilsonville School District budget committee was faced with a difficult but different kind of choice: Trust its own budget projections, invest in teachers and reduce class sizes — or choose a more conservative approach, avoiding changes in programs or services while building its reserve funds.

In the end, the budget committee voted June 10 for a more conservative approach toward its 2013-14 budget of $112,569,204. Although parents made the message loud and clear that reducing class sizes is a priority for the community, the committee opted to keep staffing levels essentially the same.

At the meeting, school board members and the superintendent were in attendance, along with the five-member budget committee.

“In recent years,” Business Manager Doug Middlestetter said, “we have been investing our reserves to maintain school days and staffing.” As a result, he said, the district has “not accumulated reserves or cushions to buffer against funding irregularities.”

The 2013-14 budget projects an ending fund balance of $797,280 that could provide that buffer.

“Each year’s budget includes an ending fund balance,” Middlestetter said, a reserve the district could tap for unexpected needs. For the budget year that’s just ending, he said, “our budget reserve was similar, about $700,000. We do not have an accumulated reserve account that we stash money in like a savings account. If we have money left over, we roll that into resources for the current year. This district has always put everything we have into the classrooms, because that’s what we believe in.

“We would like to establish healthier reserves going forward to help keep our district from experiencing the ups and downs that erratic state funding causes,” Middlestetter said.

The 2013-14 budget includes an increase in the general fund budget of approximately 8 percent, Middlestetter said. The increase was mostly due to increased state funding for schools and carry forward of the prior year’s balance.

In all, Middlestetter described the 2013-14 budget as a “status quo” approach that reflects “critical strides toward stability and sustainability.”

Acknowledging concerns about large classroom sizes, Superintendent Bill Rhoades described a difficult choice between excellence of programs and funding reserves. The key questions, he said, were: “How much can we start to bring back?” and “How can we get back to these staffing levels we enjoyed four to five years ago?”

Dale Hoogestraat, outgoing board member, described the board’s dual priorities.

“If additional monies became available,” he said, “it’s pretty clear what your priorities are. Add teachers back into classrooms and build some kind of contingency reserve funds.”

The best path, he said, was the one the budget committee ultimately voted for: prudent additions of staff at a sustainable level that would preclude layoffs in the next biennium.

Parents attending the meeting urged the district to focus immediately on classroom size, even at the expense of programs such as world languages.

“If we have to pick and choose,” Natalie Winchester said, “I’d rather see my child in a smaller classroom than having a half-hour of Chinese language instruction.”

Rhoades characterized the costs associated with the world languages program as “minimal” and emphasized that the sheer number of classrooms in the district meant that the solution would be similarly large in scale.

School Board Chairman Keith Steele offered reassurance to parents, saying, “We hear you. We have a lot of moving pieces that we’re trying to balance.”

The next step is to adopt the budget at the school board’s next regular meeting, scheduled for June 17 at 7 p.m. in the district administration building at 22210 SW Stafford Road. Board meetings are open to the public.

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