The St. Michael-Albertville school board will officially vote on whether to bring a funding levy to voters in August, but all signs so far point to a November vote on somewhere around $7.9 million to shore up a bleak financial forecast for ISD 885.
The school district will spend down its fund balance by $819,000 for the upcoming school year, despite having cut around 70 employees this spring. Next year, projections forecast spending $3 million more of the fund balance, which will bring the school district’s fund balance-once so healthy that some called for the district to spend it down rather than collect the full levy from taxpayers-down to 4.1 percent. The school district’s long-held fund balance policy calls for a minimum of 12 percent of its annual budget to be held in reserve.
While many uncertainties remain beyond that, the current financial forecast projects ISD 885 to be in statutory operating debt by fiscal year 2024.
To help prevent a further spend-down of the district’s fund balance, the school board voted last Monday to enact a hiring freeze until January 3, 2022.
The staff cuts this spring will mean elementary students could see class sizes as high as 25-26 in kindergarten, and as many as 33 in fourth grade. In typical years, class sizes would run about five students fewer per class. Secondary class sizes will also see a bump. The possible $7.9 million levy, if passed, would allow class sizes to return to STMA’s typical standards.
In discussions last week, school board members spoke in favor of approving a levy, saying they felt backed into a corner by circumstances beyond the school district’s control (such as covid and the district’s status as the lowest-funded school district in the state), and that voters should get a say in whether the STMA school district maintains its typical offerings in academics, activities, bussing etc.
“We owe it to the community to give them the option to vote for continuing the programs and class sizes we’ve had, or make adjustments,” board member Larry Sorensen said.
Legislative Session Impacts on STMA
Minnesota’s governing leaders recently passed a two-year budget that they touted as bringing the most money into education in 15 years. The bill included a 2.45 percent increase to the state’s public education basic funding formula for the first year, and 2 percent in the second year. St. Michael-Albertville Superintendent Ann-Marie Foucault said this amounts to about $1.2 million for year one and $930,000 in year two. For comparison, Foucault said the district cut over $6 million in the last 15 months.
“We’re certainly very grateful for these dollars, but it’s not enough,” she said. “We lost so much money during the pandemic that there’s a huge hole, and we’re trying to dig out of it.”
Foucault and the school board have especially decried the state’s decision to base Covid funding for schools on adult poverty levels in the district. She said some school districts received so much Covid relief that they are completing building upgrades with their windfalls, while STMA received just over $1 million, far below the $6.95 million it lost from Covid-related expenses, including lower student enrollment, substitute staff, technology, cleaning supplies, a health coordinator and HR support costs.
“The disproportionate way those funds were distributed really hurt our district,” board member Hollee Saville said. “Through no fault of the district, we had major losses in revenue that the district couldn’t have foreseen. The state messed up, big time, and now our taxpayers are going to be paying the price, our staff will pay the price, our kids will pay the price.”