Helm describes plan as ‘putrid,’ says students don’t get enough funding
By RACHEL COLEMAN
• Leader & Times
The USD 480 board approved the district’s 2013-14 budget Monday night, which increases the mill levy by 3.084 mills but not without some drama, during which board member Steve Helm described the plan as “putrid, not prudent.” Despite Helm’s comments, the board approved the budget 4-2-0, with Delvin Kinser, Chris Jewell, Matt Friederich and Crystal Clemens for, Helm and Tammy Sutherland Abbott against and Nick Hatcher absent due to an injury.
Addressing his fellow board members, Helm read a prepared statement that listed expenditures he found objectionable. Among these were the overall budget increase; the new budget weighs in at $65 million and required an increase in the local mill levy.
Worst of all, he claimed, “instructional expenditures have been reduced … by six percent this year.” Helm pointed out that the district will spend $440 less per student — the equivalent of $10,000 less per teacher’s classroom — throughout the district.
Finance director Jerry Clay said Helm’s analysis of the budget reflected a misunderstanding of the 113-page document.
“I don’t know what he was looking at to come up with that number, but in reality, the district allocated $1 million more for instructional expenditures this year,” Clay said, adding that it was possible Helm did not remember that the district had, for the past three years, received federal funds earmarked as “SIG” (Special Instructional Grant) money. That $1.3 million infusion of cash had to be spent solely on South Middle School — and it expired last year.
“So that money is not going to be in this year’s budget,” Clay said, which creates the appearance of a district cutback in instructional expenditures.
Helm understands how the SIG grant worked, he said, and it has nothing to do with the money the district has allocated to educate each student.
“That $440 per student I’m talking about — it’s right there in black and white, on page 99 of the budget,” he said. “The amount budgeted per pupil was $6,877 last year. This year, it’s $6,435. And the budget itself records the fact that is a 6% decrease.”
Clay said another reason the instructional expenditures appear smaller on paper is a quirk of the state of Kansas’ accounting rules for school districts.
“We aren’t allowed to list, in our budgets, activity funds we will in actuality receive over the year’s time, and we aren’t allowed to budget in advance for the cost of textbook rentals,” Clay said. “Last year, by the end of the school year, those items totalled $877,000. So that, with the SIG money, is more than $2 million that doesn’t appear in what we prepared for the budget. We aren’t allowed to even list it.”
Helm’s complaints about the budget ranged from criticism of how the district has handled workman’s compensation claims “due to a lack of oversight,” to the increase in technical support staff who handle the district’s computer systems. He listed increases in cost for the transportation system, paired with a decrease in students eligible to ride the bus. And while he understands the budget is “complicated and cumbersome,” he said, he wishes the board had more hands-on involvement in prioritizing the way the district spends money.
“The county, the city, the college — they have budget workshops that last for hours,” he said. “They work on the budget for literally days. Here at the district, Mr. Clay gives a brief overview for 30 minutes, kind of a flyover approach. There’s no input from board members. So much stuff could be prioritized differently. I’m not an expert, but I am passionate about this, and I think we could do better.”
Clay, who’s been lining out the fine points of the district budget for 16 years, said the task is not easy. With taxpayers unhappy about increases, the administration did “everything we could to keep the mill level impact as low as possible,” he said. “That’s hard to do when you also want to keep class sizes small, and keep providing quality instruction.”
The central office, Clay said, “feels those non-direct people and programs have impact on the students’ ability to learn. You want it comfortable in the classroom, you want it clean, you want the technology working. Those are things that are done behind the scenes, because if that doesn’t operate, it has an effect on that teacher when he or she goes to teach.”
Overall, Clay said, he’s satisfied that the new budget is the best possible solution to the complex problems the district faces.
Helm, however, wishes the process had involved more points of view.
“To me, it almost feels like we’re shirking our duty,” he said. “I wish we as a board could be more involved in sorting it out.”
The mill levy increase brings the district’s total mill levy to 43.613 mills.