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Swedeborg struggles to keep a balanced budget
Swedeborg struggles to keep a balanced budget

District Administrator Ryan Warnol explains budget proposals at the Monday, Nov. 10 meeting of the Swedeborg R-III School Board.
SWEDEBORG, Mo. (Nov. 12, 2008) — Budget time can be difficult for any school district, but it’s especially difficult for the small Swedeborg R-III School District.

Board members voted Monday night to ask voters in a special February election to raise the authorized tax levy from $2.75 to $3.74 per $100 of assessed valuation, with the understanding that the school board will lower it to $3.43 each year, the amount needed to get the district’s share of $5 million in special funds set aside by Missouri state officials for small districts.

However, District Administrator Ryan Warnol told board members on Monday that he had to prepare a balanced budget to present to the voters. The budget for next year proposed by Warnol is $706,000, with raw revenues up by about $17,000, mostly through state funds, over the current year’s budget of $689,000.

Warnol said he cut the budget substantially from the amounts originally requested, and later clarified that meant a $58,000 reduction from what had been requested.

“This is taking into account increasing food costs, increasing transportation costs, looking at this literally line by line; if there are any questions about anything in there, ask,” Warnol said. “There are a lot of things that just didn’t need to be in there that were just zeroed out.”

Warnol said other cuts could be considered as well.

“I do have some suggestions for further cuts, but they deal with things that would be closed-session items,” Warnol said.

Under Missouri’s Sunshine Law, closed session items usually deal with items such as personnel matters, contracts, legal issues, or property sales or purchases.

Board President Chris Black thanked Warnol for his work.

“I know the budget has been stressful and obviously you’ve taken a harder look at it than anybody has in the past several years. That doesn’t make your job easy at all,” Black said. “When you’re presented a proposed budget with that kind of deficit spending and bring it back to zero, you’ve done a good job of saying ‘no.’”

After the meeting, Warnol explained more about his budget cutting process.

“We’re looking at everyday costs that in watching where our pennies are going, in the final analysis, it is to the tune of $58,000 we were able to shave off the budget, which put us in the surplus,” Warnol said. “We were looking at $50 and $100 items, going line by line, and making sure the money was doing what it should be, and making sure we were not cutting or hurting the resources we need to educate kids.”

Despite the cuts, Black said Swedeborg’s small student-teacher ratio shows the district is providing superior education to its students.

“When we went to the conference at Tan-Tar-A, we had people who couldn’t believe that we had a staff-to-student ratio of 7 to 1,” Black said. “We had people saying we were wonderful, and that’s as good as some of the private schools. And if we’re going to continue to enjoy that, we’re going to have to do something to pay for it.”

However, some board members said certain budget-balancing options may not be wise.

Board member Jamie Alexander noted that interest rates on deposits are “as low as they’ve ever been,” but said some banks outside the area may be offering higher rates than the rates Swedeborg currently receives from local banks.

“If we are going to seek higher prices on CDs, we may be facing market rates or at least higher rates the next time we go to get a loan,” Black said.

“Don’t we owe it to the taxpayers to get higher rates on our money?” Alexander asked.

“Yes, but we also owe it to the taxpayers to make sure we can afford the terms of a loan. It’s just something to think about,” Black said.

Warnol and Black said they’ve been advised to consider bringing the Parents as Teachers early childhood program back under Swedeborg’s supervision as a way to help the district. Currently, Swedeborg contracts with the Richland R-IV School District to provide the state-mandated program.

Parent educators need to go through a training program before beginning their duties unless they’ve already been certified for their work. Warnol said he’d try to hire a full-time Parents as Teachers coordinator, and if he could not do so, would try to find someone willing to be very committed but work part-time.

“We need to make sure we have all our ducks in a row and that we understand the program fully and are prepared to move ahead with it,” Warnol said.

Black, whose wife has previously worked as a Parents as Teachers parent educator, said he knows from experience that the program can be helpful.

“Not to short-change them, but a lot of parents don’t realize that there are certain things kids should be able to do at age 2, age 3 and so forth,” Black said.

Board member Lucas Gibson agreed.

“Especially with lower-income kids, they aren’t necessarily seeing their pediatrician every five months and nobody may be checking to see how their kids are doing, and asking, ‘Can your kids do this? If not, they should be,’” Gibson said.

“I think something like 75 percent of our kids are on free or reduced lunch. There definitely is a need here,” Black said.

In other business:

• Board members approved a request by Warnol to change a previous decision to designate a specific company to handle retirement plans after Warnol realized it would affect the ability of other staff members to use their existing plans.

“Essentially what I need to do is ask you to undo what I previously asked you to do,” Warnol said. “What was happening is the teachers could no longer contribute to their accounts that they were using.”

• Black told board members that the previous practice of adding items at the last minute to the board agenda wasn’t proper because of state laws requiring that the public be notified of items planned for discussion.

“We’ve been kind of lax on coming to the meeting and adding five or six items to the agenda,” Black said. “Because of the Sunshine Law, we can’t be adding items to the agenda unless it is an emergency.”

Agenda items need to be distributed to the media and posted for the public 24 hours prior to the meeting, Warnol noted.

• Board members didn’t take formal action but said they had no objection to a plan by Warnol to turn a room that currently houses a stage and auditorium into a computer lab.

“Before I kill the sacred cow, I thought I’d better bring this to you and see if you had anything to say about this,” Warnol said.

“We want our school to grow, and this room is so packed that we have no room when we hold one of these functions,” Alexander replied. “I know change is difficult, but we have got to change if we want to grow.”

“I think the kids need a computer lab more than they need to have a stage,” said board member Alexis Roam. “I want to see the kids using computers. I don’t want to see us buying all these computers and then our kids not using them, or using them only for games. We need to have them learning to do word processing, making Power Points, and learning basic programming.

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