Board hears update on budget assumptions

    The St. James Board of Education heard from Superintendent Dr. Merlyn Johnson, who gave an update on budget assumptions for the next school year during a meeting on Thursday, May 21. Johnson told the board there is a lot of uncertainty due to the lack of information on what the state budget will look like, but expects cuts to be made that will impact the district.

    “There is lots of work going into preparing our budgets, for starting back to school, for summer school, for graduation, and just one announcement, one press conference throws it all out,” Johnson told the board. He said there is much uncertainty about how badly the state’s budget has been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, but said he expects school districts across the state to have cuts to their budgets.
    “It’s not good. When the governor says there is going to be a $500 million to $700 million cut to the state budget, we start doing what we think that means for public schools. Does that mean $120 million, does that mean $150 million? Whatever that is, we assume it’s going to be similar to the state budget shortfall, somewhere around six, seven, eight, nine percent,” he said. “We already had a reduced formula assumption. Well, the information we got, we need to adjust it more drastically.”
    He told the board the district is expecting about $65 per student, per year reduction in state funding, around $100,000 less than anticipated. “So, this is not good news and I would definitely consider this a budget crisis right now across the state,” Johnson said. “The great thing is we are all in this together, not just Missouri, but every school in the country and beyond.”
    Johnson also told the board there is going to be an increase in health insurance costs next year as well, about $108,000, along with movements on the salary schedule, which will also add $107,000. He added the district has been working on an adjusted salary schedule for classified personnel to help compete with minimum wage and to better align with neighboring districts. This will add $73,000 to the budget.
    The School Resource Officer positions will be altered due to St. James city council choosing to opt out of the program due to the strains on the city budget from declining sales tax revenues caused by the pandemic. Board members said they were in support of funding one officer, but want to change how the split in costs is shared between the district and the city.
    Johnson said he believes the amount of money provided by the state through the funding formula will be less than originally believed. “It is not as bad right now as what we thought, but it’s anticipated to get worse,” he told the board. He also said Title allocations are expected to take a hit, which could cause a reduction in Title staff.
    He said Governor Mike Parson has recommended districts cut expenses as low as possible and put projects on hold for the next one to two years until the state can recover.
    In other business, the board heard from Athletic Director Greg Harlan, who discussed changes in coaching and sponsor stipends. Harlan explained coaches and sponsors currently receive a stipend for their duties at a level established by the previous coach. This has led to long-standing coaches receiving the same stipend as an entry level coach with no experience.
    He recommended there be a stipend scale to provide more money for coaches who have been coaching longer. “We want you to keep coaching. We don’t want to get a first-year head coach every time. We want experience to make our programs better,” Harlan told the board.
    The cost to the district is estimated around $7,000 to $8,000 and would give more incentive for coaches to participate longer. The board did not decide on the issue, but will take Harlan’s suggestion under advisement.
    The board also heard FirED up consulting group has requested the final meetings of an ongoing project to create a long-term, district-wide education and facilities plan. The group began meetings in the spring with students, parents, faculty, business leaders, and others to begin designing the plan, but the project was delayed when Missouri put a stay-at-home order in place for COVID-19. The cost to the district was approximately $8,000 and, Johnson said, if the process does not start again soon, it will have to be done from the start, meaning an additional cost to the district and several months more of the process.
    Finally, the board approved a tentative date for seated summer school to begin on July 1 for students in kindergarten through 12 grade. The board felt the need to establish the dates, which must be sent to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education so the school receives funding for summer school. There is an online summer school being offered to high school students.
    There are still questions on how summer school will be safely held and it could be canceled, should health officials deem it unsafe to return to school, but the board felt it should establish dates for summer school on the assumption students can return with restrictions to the buildings.

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