North Platte resident Bernice Ziegler asked the school board Monday to spell out how the district is saving nearly $1 million in expenses in the coming school year.Ziegler, 90, engaged the school board in a 25-minute discussion during an unprecedented extended session for public comments.
In a change of policy, the board now allows up to five minutes per person during public comments speak, and the time slot for comments has moved ahead in the meeting agenda, to near the middle of the meeting.
Ziegler repeatedly citicized the school board and top admininstrators during the past 10 months in a series of guest opinions in the Bulletin, as well as comments at school board meetings.
Ziegler told officials before the meeting Monday that she wanted to address more than one topic and it might take more than five minutes, and they said they would try to accommodate her.
At the start of Ziegler’s remarks, she congratulated the board and top three administrators for their open communications about the meeting, and during it, to that point. She contrasted her impressions of previous meetings, when she felt like she was “intruding on a meeting of a secret society.”
She said in the past she wondered if the board was communicating between meetings to stay abreast of developments, or worse, not communicating at all.
“But you are more communicative tonight,” she said sincerely. “Thanks.”
Ziegler then criticized the board for approving raises to the top administrators, who in turn didn’t know the duties of counselors and psychologists when they decided to cut back the days in their contracts.
Those cuts led to appeals by the staff that was cut. The board denied their appeal on May 15 after a seven-hour hearing.
The status of that situation is still unsettled, North Platte Education Association (teacher’s union) president Michelle Strickland told the Bulletin
Strickland said the affected staff could appeal the board’s decision in district court, but has not done so yet. She said she met with Supt. Ron Hanson once and plans to meet with him again soon, along with Associate Supt. Tami Eshelman, hopefully to hammer out a better arrangement and a better method to deal with the issue if it arises again.
Ziegler said Monday that the board’s rejection of the appeal might have seemed like “a win” to the administration, but it was “a loss to the taxpayer,” who had to pay the costs of attorneys for the hearing, eating into what would have been a maximum savings of about $30,000.
On that subject, Ziegler also asked for a breakdown of how the district has cut $980,000 from next year’s expenses, to come up with a balanced budget.
She was referring to school records that show the district has lost:
• $808,000 due to an enrollment reduction of 119 students, which equates to less state aid.
• $105,000 in 2016-17 state aid due to state revenue reductions.
• $446,000 in 2017-18 state aid due to anticipated state revenue reductions.
Simpson told Ziegler the district has balanced most of the 2017-18 budget by reducing personnel costs. He gave her, and the Bulletin, a more detailed breakdown after the meeting, which says the district has, or will, cut:
• $350,000 from staff salaries.
• $163,000 from building budgets (a 5% cut.)
• $150,000 from library/media center staff (as reported in the Bulletin a week ago.)
• $100,000 from the special education staff.
• $92,150 from the staff of The Learning Center, an educational program for students who are at-risk of failure. The saving is due to a resignation that was not filled, Simpson said.
• $60,000 from clerical costs, due to resignations that were not filled.
• $35,000 from maintenance, due to a resignation that will not be filled.
• $30,000 from reductions in extended contracts (counselors, psychologists & industrial teachers.)
That adds up to the total savings of $980,000.
Next year's deficit
The cuts bring the district’s budget into balance for the coming school year, except for the $446,000 reduction in state aid.
Simpson said the district will use $446,000 in cash reserves to cover that loss, and then set out a new plan to cut costs and/or build revenues as the new fiscal year unfolds.
He has said the district should consider what to do with several buildings, notably a few modular buildings with two classrooms each, as well as Hall school, the former elementary building on the north side of the city that is now closed.
Options include selling the bulidings, Simpson has told the finance subcommittee.
In response to another question from Ziegler, Simpson said he would have a complete but preliminary budget ready in mid-July, before the budget hearing for taxpayers.
That budget hearing is tentatively set for 4 p.m. on Monday Aug. 7. Ziegler asked them to reconsider that time. She said many taxpayers will still be on the job at 4 p.m.