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Charles City School Board OK’s budget cuts for next year

Charles City School Board OK’s budget cuts for next year
Members of the Charles City Board of Education and administration listen to comments regarding budget-cutting choices during a meeting held Monday evening at the Youth Enrichment Center at the Floyd County Fairgrounds. Press photo by Travis Fischer
By Travis Fischer,

Following a month of public discussion, the Charles City Community School Board made the decision to cut a business teacher, a music teacher, and potentially a building administrator as part of a much-debated budget reduction plan during its regular meeting on Monday, Jan. 23.

The board has been weighing its options on the difficult task of reducing positions since last December when it was presented with a proposal to adjust for a shortfall in the 2023-24 budget.

With enrollment down by 64 students for the current year and the district being forced to pay back funds after over-reporting enrollment by 18 students the year before, the district will be down $609,000 in its general fund for next year.

Taking into account projected increases in employee compensation on top of the shortfall, district administrators and program directors devised a budget reduction plan with a rough target of $750,000 in cuts.

The budget reduction plan included a baseline level of cuts amounting to nearly $600,000, finding savings by reducing a bus route, cutting back on summer workers, reclassifying certain positions to be paid through other sources of funding, and leaving some opening left by outgoing teachers vacant. The baseline plan also included the reduction of one business teacher.

To get closer to the $750,000 goal, the board was presented with three potential options. The first would be to reduce staffing in the music program by two positions, with an estimated savings of roughly $117,000.

The second option would be to reduce one middle school music instructor and a secondary English teacher, resulting in a savings of roughly $120,000.

The third option would be to reduce one middle school music instructor and the high school assistant principal, for a savings of roughly $173,000.

The notion of cutting up to two music teachers resulted in considerable backlash from the community, which filled the high school library during the board’s December meeting to oppose the plan. As a result, the board decided to table the agenda item for a month, giving administrators and board members additional time to consider the proposals and seek out alternative ideas.

It was quickly decided that cutting two music positions would be taken off the table, leaving the board with the remaining two options to consider, which would become known as Option A and Option B, respectively. During a Jan. 17 workshop meeting, the board introduced Option C and Option D as well.

Option C would include most of the baseline budget cuts, but would forego all of the involuntary position reductions and instead call for a short term tax increase to make up the difference.

Option D would be similar, except that it would still include the reduction of a business teacher common to the other proposals.

Meeting at the Youth Enrichment Center at the Floyd County Fairgrounds in anticipation of a large crowd of speakers, the board heard additional comments from the public before members began their own discussion on the matter.

Many of the speakers thanked the board members for their consideration and diligence over the last month, empathizing with the difficult decisions they’ve been asked to make while offering their own suggestions.

“Cutting teachers should be the very last option ever,” said Missy Freund, a former school board member who encouraged the board to consider offering a stronger early retirement package before reducing positions.

It was later noted that the district is offering an early retirement incentive and that only two eligible staff have taken up the offer. The deadline for accepting the early retirement package is Feb. 1.

Other concerns came from members of Project RISE, which is being reclassified as an activity program and has already lost an adviser with the resignation of Karleen Sickmann.

“We have already had a couple bumps in the road,” said Mallory Koenbrinck, expressing her concern about the future of the program.

Following the public comment portion of the meeting, it came time for the board members to discuss the matter amongst themselves.

Board member Dr. David Schrodt opened the discussion by making a motion to approve Option B, with the condition that the reduction of the high school assistant principal portion be stricken and replaced with a reduction in administration as needed once all other factors and considerations, such as early retirements and legislative decisions, have been exhausted.

The motion was seconded by board member Kathryn Fox and discussion began.

Board member Josh Mack expressed reservations about making cuts to administration, while board member Janiece Bergland was hesitant to cut a music position, suggesting they consider raising taxes to get through the year.

At the same time, board member Pat Rottinghaus noted that while staffing cuts are not popular, neither are tax increases.

“No one likes cuts,” said Rottinghaus. “I feel like we’re in a rock and a hard place.”

Taking a rollcall vote, Rottinghaus and Schrodt voted in favor while Mack and Bergland voted against. Fox made the deciding vote against, citing a desire to consider other options before making a final decision.

With the motion defeated, the board considered the implications of Options C and D, with Director of Finance Evan Marten explaining the details of taxable property valuation and the school district’s spending authority.

The school district currently has $3.9 million in unspent spending authority, which is not how much they have in funds, but the maximum amount of what they can legally spend.

“I have to make sure I have enough cash on hand to cover that limit,” said Marten.

To implement Option C, which would cover the budget shortfall without reducing staff, the district would need approximately $257,000, which would require an additional tax of 42 cents per $1,000 in valuation.

Option D, which would only cut a business teacher, would require a 28 cent tax.

Noting that the district is already struggling to gain support for a bond referendum and that enrollment numbers are not likely to substantially improve, the board struggled to choose between two deeply unpopular options.

“There’s not a win here,” said Fox.

Schrodt again made a motion to go with Option B, with his previously noted amendments. The motion was again seconded by Fox.

“We’re going to have to do that going forward,” said Schrodt. “It’s not fair, in my mind, to leave everything the same when student numbers are down.”

In a roll call vote, Mack and Bergland voted against the motion, while Schrodt, Fox, and Rottinghaus voted in favor.

In other business, Superintendent Dr. Anne Lundquist reported that the district had failed to collect enough signatures to put the bond referendum for the High School Auditorium and Renovation project on the ballot for the March election.

Provided the scope and cost of the project does not change, the district can still collect signatures to bring the matter to the voters this fall, but that will be discussed at a later date.

“There is potential for a fall referendum if that’s the community’s desire,” said Lundquist. “For now, we’re going to hit the pause button.”

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