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Creative job shifting allowed the West Fargo school district to keep its budget in the black

WEST FARGO— With some creative job shifting and cutting of supplies, West Fargo School District officials were able to pull its budget out of the red in the upcoming year without major cuts to staff.

In January, school officials feared a budget shortfall of $5.5 million by fall. The district's current expense budget is roughly $124 million, and 80 percent of it is staffing costs. To avoid letting staff go, some positions had to be reassigned. For example, Business Manager Mark Lemer said, some teachers who had been working as reading specialists were asked to return to traditional teaching jobs in the classroom.

The sole full-time position that was eliminated was one Junior ROTC teacher. Superintendent David Flowers said at least 100 students were supposed to be in the program that had two teachers. The enrollment hadn't been met in the past four years, so it made sense to reduce staff in that area.

The district eliminated some part-time paraprofessional positions, or shifted their hours among schools. Lemer said he expects they will find work in the district in the new school year.

"There will be work for them in the district; what they do will just look different," Lemer said.

As the 2016-17 school year budget comes to an end on June 30, the district will still have about a $1.7 million deficit. To cover that, the district will dip into its fund balance.

To balance the 2017-18 budget that will begin on July 1, Lemer figured in those staffing changes but also cut other expenses, such as snow removal, travel and supplies.

"So there will be a deficit for '16-17, but what we are showing you is that we have been able to balance the budget and we can show a small surplus (next year)," Lemer said at the Monday, June 26, school board meeting. "The vast majority of budget work has already been done. Right now it's just minor tweaks that need to be done."

The small surplus Lemer was able to create with supply cuts and staffing changes allowed the district to offer teachers a 2 percent pay package increase of teacher contracts through negotiations. Teacher contract negotiations are ongoing. The union has yet to respond to the offered contracts, district spokeswoman Heather Konschak said.

Shortfall projections based on state

The large budget shortfall was expected if state legislators would have decided to eliminate or not continue rapid enrollment grants, which give school districts that grow by 4 percent or more additional funding per student. If the West Fargo School District continues to grow by about 400 students or more each year, as it has in the past decade and is projected to in the future, the additional funding becomes a major chunk of its budget, even if it comes a year after the student population is counted.

Lemer said luckily the rapid enrollment grants were passed by the Legislature.

West Fargo schools hoped the state would consider "on-time funding," which would base funding on more current enrollments rather than the year before, which is how it is calculated now, but it was not changed.

Because West Fargo has opened five elementary schools, a second high school and a middle school in the past 10 years to accommodate enrollment, it relies heavily on the rapid-enrollment grants.

The booming population also requires additional hiring of staff, which officials were also able to reduce in the upcoming budget, even though Brooks Harbor Elementary School will open in the fall.

Flowers said the shifting of job duties allowed the district to hire only 13 new teachers for the 2017-18 school year, compared to last year when the district hired about 42 teachers.

Looking ahead

While the district is expected to end the next school year with a surplus, if expenses unexpectedly go up, it will be tough to rebalance the budget.

"Because of how we built our budgets coming into the 2017-18 school year, if we get into a deficit situation in 2017-18, there is very little we can do," Lemer said. "We've taken the flexibility out of the budgets."

Revenues could be higher than what Lemer has projected. Taxable valuations, which have helped the district in the past as they have been increasing in Fargo and Moorhead each year, will be calculated next month, Lemer said.

Wendy Reuer

Wendy reports for The Forum and West Fargo Pioneer, where she is also assistant editor. A University of Minnesota Morris graduate from North Dakota, Wendy started her career in television news and entertainment in Minnesota and at CBS in Television City, Calif. before working at newspapers in Minnesota and North Dakota. 

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