GREENE, IOWA – On Monday, October 20, 2014, the North Butler School District board and superintendent had a public meeting to inform the communities that the district had negative unspent balance of approximately $275,000 in the general fund. This figure was later determined to be inaccurate and amended to be $213,733. Measures would have to be taken to come up with a “Corrective Action Plan” which needs to be presented to the Iowa Department of Education’s School Board Review Committee on November 14, 2014. In the district’s current proposed action plan, one of the key savings is to close the elementary school building in Greene, Iowa. The District has stated that this would produce savings in the neighborhood of $180,000.
This caused a stir and the public had several questions and responses. Some were for closing the building and some against it. Many of the questions asked were met with no answers. One of the board members stated they were open to suggestions and ideas from the public.
Over the next few days, many in the community wondered what they could do, how did we get into this position, and how could they save the elementary. Following through on the board member’s challenge, a couple of citizens decided to take action by forming a group on Facebook named “Save North Butler Schools” and holding meetings for anyone who wished to attend. The group had to be swift and come up with an action plan quickly.
In the first meeting, it was decided to pursue this from a business aspect. The product we wanted to produce is quality educated children. Everything done was to be for the good of the children’s’ education. The format was a “Kaizen” event which many businesses utilize to problem solve and come up with positive outcomes. The ground rules were that no idea was a bad idea and that saving, or not saving, the elementary was secondary to the plan.
The current state of the district was mapped out and an action plan developed.
The community developed action plan created in order to reduce our general fund follows:
1. No programs are to be cut.
2. The elementary in Greene would remain open.
3. Each elementary in the district would keep pre-school (Teddy Bear Time), Pre-Kindergarten and Kindergarten.
4. The elementary in Greene would host grades 1st – 3rd. This elementary is award winning and would give all the children in the district an excellent start. By all students in a grade level being in the same building, it allows them to build relationships early and allows same-grade teachers face to face communication and collaboration.
5. The elementary in Allison would then host grades 4th – 8th. Any sharing of teachers between the high school and middle school would still require the teachers to travel, which they are currently doing. This also allows 7th and 8th grade students to utilize the facility for sports and eliminates them having to be transported to Allison just for after-school practices.
6. The high school would remain in Greene.
This plan provides savings of $359,550 as defined below. This exceeds the required amount of savings required by the state by $145,817.
1. Leased bus savings – This action has already been approved by the district. Fiscal year 2015 yields $25,000 savings and fiscal 2016 yields $50,000 savings.
2. Elimination of a part-time elementary library associate on the first of the year (2015). Fiscal year 2015 yields $3,500 savings and fiscal 2016 yields $7,100 savings.
3. Reduction of staff – In many industries today management is asking employees to do more with less and reducing their head count as much as possible.
3A. High school kitchen staff by one. In fiscal 2016 yields $8,000 savings.
3B. Administrative position by one. In fiscal 2016 yields $82,800 savings.
3C. Part-time business manager. This has already been done by the district. In fiscal year 2015 yields $13,709 savings.
3D. Eliminate secretary in Allison December 2014. In fiscal 2015 yields $10,825 savings and in fiscal 2016 yields $21,650 savings.
3E. Reduction of two teaching positions. This will be achieved by combining grades in their individual buildings. In fiscal 2016, this yields $100,000 savings.
4. Early retirement. The district can reduce costs by offering early retirement. The benefit package that would be given to the employee comes out of a management fund. The district then hires in an employee at a lower starting wage which saves the difference in pay in the general fund.
4A. Retirement of a custodian and transportation director/custodian. In fiscal 2016 yields $46,000 in savings.
4B. Early retirement of one teacher. In fiscal 2016, this yields $25,000 savings.
Energy savings at the elementary in Greene – The replacement of the boiler, controls and in the elementary in Greene would improve the building’s efficiency by 40% according to professional input. In fiscal 2016, this yields $4,000 in savings. The $150,000 for boiler and controls and $70,000 in windows is available through the PPEL fund (building improvement fund). This fund currently has approximately $1 million dollars. This will reduce the school’s carbon footprint, provide a safer work environment for the school, and save in energy costs in the district’s general fund each year.
The students would be charged a nominal sports fee to help cover cost of transportation and other miscellaneous expenses (A family cap is suggested to reduce financial strain on families with multiple children in many sports.). In fiscal 2016, this yields an approximate $15,000 in revenue.
The savings listed above meet the requirement by the Iowa Department of Education that the district show ways to save and cover the previous negative $213,733 unspent balance. The district’s goal is to cut $350,000-$500,000 from the 2015-2016 budget, however, the Corrective Action Plan only requires the district to account for its negative balance.
Other cost-savings considerations the group would like to see the district consider are 1) Request an energy audit. Black Hills Energy will give recommendations on how the district can save energy costs. 2) Eliminate Wednesday early outs in favor of full-days of professional development for the teachers. This will save on transportation costs and support stage wages. 3) Possibly share a superintendent with another district to reduce administration costs.
One thing the group did put into action was a pledge drive in order to show the district they are supported by our communities. Because of the timing of this issue, we are currently 1/4 of the way through fiscal 2015 and are again facing shortcoming in the budget put in place by a previous administrator. The idea behind the pledges is to keep us out of the red. Each time a district shows a negative balance, we have to come up with a corrective action plan and we are then subject to a phase 1 audit which could result in the closing of the district. Historically, in Iowa, other districts have been in financial problems, but only 2 schools have closed. In only 3 days, the group has received more than $30,000 in pledges that will be given to the NB School district should they choose not to close the elementary school in Greene. Small towns rally when it is needed.
An outsiders’ observation couldn’t believe how our small communities have come forward to help each other. Looking back to 2008, our communities spent the spring in Parkersburg helping with the devastation of the tornadoes. Shortly after that we spend time helping with sandbagging and clean-up of the 2008 floods. In the summer of 2014 we shined as Ragbrai traveled through the district. And when we talk about these past events, this was never the efforts of just one of our communities, but all three of our communities.
We are currently facing a difficult situation and need to look at the responsibility of the district, the school board and current and past administration.
1. The district must provide a balanced, accurate budget. The current salary numbers provided by the district show that a bus driver is budgeted at their contract wage of $3,400. In the past years, bus drivers have earned $15,000 to $24,000. A discrepancy that we don’t have an explanation for.
2. The district must provide the communities with facts and not just speculative numbers. Initially, it was presented to the public that a new boiler system at the elementary in Greene would cost $400,000 then that figure was reduced to $150,000 once bids were received. So little homework has been done on either the true cost of repairs or the cost of actually closing the building (will it be torn down and how much will that cost?). Answers have not been forthcoming and while the district may not know them at this time, how can they consciously make a decision like closing an entire building without knowing all the facts?
3. The district currently has 730 students enrolled. The capacity of the 3 school buildings is: 250 elementary in Greene, 450 elementary/middle school in Allison, and 350 high school in Greene. This capacity is based on how many students the buildings will hold, but what are the functional capacities of these buildings? If the elementary in Greene is closed, the capacity will be reduced to 800 students, leaving less than 10% for allowable enrollment growth. If we see growth each year by 10 students, the functional capacity will be reached in 7 years. Will the communities then be asked for a bond to build or expand?
4. Prior to closing the elementary in Greene, the district should follow the Barker Guidelines. This is not a requirement in closing a school building, but recommended procedure to follow prior to closing it, which includes an 18 month study. Currently the district has only looked at this option for less than 3 months.
We have presented a lot of information in this article and it is still an unclear choice to close the elementary in Greene. We do know, as a group, once that building is gone it will cost million of dollars to replace it should our district experience enrollment growth. With the action plan laid out above, it provides us time to study not only past budget issues and how to prevent these moving forward, but also the costs of closing a building.
The group that put this information together should be proud of their accomplishments. Never were they not willing to participate, give creative ideas, research information, remain open-minded, and help. If you want join in the conversation and see other ideas, please visit the Facebook page “Save North Butler Schools”.