Facing up to financial challenges

"Talk of the District" with Denise Pontrelli, Superintendent
May 04, 2018

I was drawn to education because I love kids and I love learning. As superintendent, those are the areas where I most want to spend my time. However, as the leader of an organization of 1,000 employees, 8,300+ students and a multi-million dollar budget, I would not be doing my job if I did not share with you some concerns I see in the district’s financial future.

Just as you may budget for your personal finances, district leaders are looking closely at the district’s budget, considering what might happen with state funding, and setting priorities for how to invest its limited resources.

What they’re discovering is no big surprise, but it is a concerning trend impacting districts across the state. Costs - like salaries and benefits (which make up more than 75 percent of the budget), utilities, classroom materials and supplies, and day-to-day expenses, are continuing to rise. Meanwhile, state funding is not keeping pace. The average state funding increase over the past 15 years is just 1.5 percent - that’s less than the national average rate of inflation.

Why are we concerned about state funding? Because our district receives roughly 68 percent of its general fund money from the state of Minnesota. We receive 26 percent from local property taxes. The federal government provides just two percent, and the other four percent comes from grants we receive and fees we charge. When state funding doesn’t keep pace with our rising costs, we fall further and further behind. This means we have less and less money with which to address the increasing needs of our students.

At the start of the next school year, projections show the district will be spending about $2.4 million more than it will bring in as revenue. By the end of the 2021-2022 school year, if nothing is done to increase revenue or reduce expenditures, it is projected that the district’s fund balance will be completely depleted.

There are no shortage of needs in our district. We hear from teachers and parents every day with things we can improve upon - from safety and security in our schools to supporting the mental health needs of our students. School leaders, staff and community members have a wish list of new programs and opportunities they’d all like to add, and of course, we hear over and over again how desperately our community wants us to lower class sizes.

Yet, unless we can increase our revenue and/or decrease our expenditures, none of this can happen. In the coming years our fixed costs will continue to rise as the needs of our students continue to grow in complexity. While I wish there was a simple answer, the reality is there are just a few ways out of this financial dilemma and none of them are easy.  

One option is to decrease our spending. School districts are very labor intensive organizations and the vast majority of our money is tied up in people. We cannot reduce our expenditures without impacting staff. Cutting positions, increasing class sizes and negotiating contracts are all possibilities that must be considered. Decreased spending means cutting back on programs and opportunities for kids. There are no easy budget reductions.

The other option is to increase revenue received from district taxpayers. There are several revenue streams we’ve not yet utilized that other school districts use to generate additional funding - including non-voter approved levies to help cover expenses from things like pension obligations to voter-approved capital projects levies to help fund technology needs.  Stillwater is currently below the cap for its operating levy, so asking voters to increase the existing operating levy is another option.

Raising taxes is never a popular idea. It’s important to note, however, that our taxpayers are already getting an incredible value when it comes to their school taxes. If you could move your existing home into neighboring districts like Mahtomedi, South Washington County or White Bear Lake, you’d pay considerably more in school taxes. Check out the graph at stillwaterschools.org/taxcompare to see how we compare. Neighboring communities have asked their voters to pay more to maintain a quality school district, and many of these communities have responded in a positive way.  

There will be no influx of cash from the state or federal government coming into our schools. This information has been shared with our school board as they plan for the future of the Stillwater Area Public Schools. The only place to even hold a financial discussion is with our own communities. It’s not a popular conversation, but it is our reality. Local residents decide on the quality of education they want for their young people.

We invite you to join us as the school board learns more about the district’s budget and their options for the future. Read more at stillwaterschools.org/budgetconvo. Board meetings and finance worksessions are open to the public and are also available to watch online at stillwaterschools.org/BoardMeets1718.