Saline Schools Superintendent Laatsch Announces Committee to Address Projected Budget Woes
Saline Area Schools Superintendent Steve Laatsch announced plans Tuesday for the creation of a strategic planning committee tasked with reconciling projected budget woes for the district, in hopes of shedding $3,000,000 from the general fund over the next three years.
Laatsch presented his objective to the board of education, citing declining enrollment as largely to blame for the situation.
“We’ve discussed that we certainly have lost over 500 students in the last five years and we haven’t changed our structure, in other words we haven’t reduced our staff, we haven’t gone through a budget reduction process,” he said. “(We) haven’t really needed to up to this point. We currently still have around a 20 percent fund balance, however that’s going to start declining rapidly if we don’t start making some structural moves.”
Laatsch noted an overall decline in birth rate as a contributing factor, as well as more varied educational options for families to pick from, as well as an increase in the cost of living in the area.
“Families have more choices than ever before as to where to send their students, whether that’s virtual, charter academies, private schools, home school, technical colleges, we’re seeing some impact there as well,” he said. “And then a third factor is more of a current state of affairs and that is with higher mortgage rates it is harder to afford a home in the area.”
The strategic planning committee will be composed of an assortment of community members, including students, teachers, sports staff, administrators and community members, Laatsch said, and their work will commence quickly.
Committee meetings will begin in November and then occur once a month until May
Laatsch said the plan is to have a financial restructuring proposal in place by May for the boards’ consideration, one that will reduce the general fund by $1,000,000 per year for each of the next three years.
One of the primary deliberations going into the committee process is lowering the fund balance percentage the board of education obliges the district to maintain.
“In speaking with our board of education finance committee, we have discussed the concept of maintaining between a 10 and 15 percent fund balance,” Laatsch said. “Again, we’re at a 20 percent fund balance right now approximately, yet again, if we don’t make some structural changes in the near future over the course of the next three years in particular then that 20 percent will quickly go below the 10 percent number within two to three years.”
Other ideas are not replacing staff when they retire, also known as attrition, repurposing buildings where appropriate and reconfiguring schedules.
“Currently we’re on a trimester schedule at the high school. What does that look like if we were to go to a semester schedule of even block schedule?” Laatsch asked. “These are all things that we could explore. Again, explore doesn’t mean we will do but as we go through this process we want to look at all of our options.”
The amount of students per classroom could possibly increase as well, but most likely not for the younger kids.
“We’ve already been regularly adjusting class size at the elementary level, so we’re not entertaining this idea that we’re going to have excessively high class sizes at elementary. We already have some high class sizes especially at the upper elementary areas,” he said. “But we do want to look at class size at our secondary level.”
At the heart of all the decisions will be what is best for students, Laatsch said.
“As we think about this we also want to make sure that we have our district vision and goals intertwined throughout the process, because we look at this as how can we change our structure but also make sure that our academic programing and all the things that we’re trying to achieve are going to be obtainable moving forward,” he said.
Trustee Tim Austin said it should not shock anyone paying attention to public education lately that funding woes were coming. He did cite other less obvious factors.
“What I think is somewhat more surprising is that we lost a lot of students through COVID. We were hoping to get a lot of those students back,” he said, citing the district being down about 100 students for that reason. “I think it’s important that we start looking at this in depth and so I’m glad you’re kind of looking through this right now because we have to start making changes right away otherwise we’ll deplete that fund balance quickly.”
Austin said the urgency is not unique to Saline.
“I think it’s not just our school that’s facing these issues right now,” he said. “I think every public school is going to be looking at their balance sheet pretty closely right now.”
Trustee Lauren Gold asked if the restructuring discussions will be only focused around the assumption that dollars will be lost and budgets cut, or if there is room for conversations on trying to recoup some of the funds that went away.
Laatsch said that will certainly be considered.
“The reality is that some reductions do need to occur, but in the process could we be restructuring in a way that could either bring in more students because of our programming or the value that we would create with a restructuring? he postulated, mentioning early childhood centers as an example of revenue generating operations.
Treasurer Brad Gerbe said getting the district’s finances in order is essential work that will not necessarily be easy, but worthwhile in shoring up SAS’ long term financial health.
“I will tell you that, yeah, this process is going to have some uncomfortableness with it,” he said. “When you look for options and ideas, that’s what they are, right? This doesn’t mean that because we put an idea on the table that’s what we’re doing.”
The Board Finance Committee and the board of education both meet again on Nov. 14.
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