Morrison superintendent urges school board to begin discussing budget cuts

Morrison High School was put on soft lockdown Wednesday morning after staff was notified of an anonymous threat made against a student.

MORRISON – As it deals with funds drained by escalating maintenance, staffing and program costs, the Morrison School Board on Monday night heard from its superintendent about the need to start discussing budget cuts.

Superintendent Scott Vance said discussions are needed in light of building operation and maintenance expenses that are coming in at $1 million per year and the ever-increasing staff, insurance and special-education program costs squeezing the education fund.

“This is a very difficult decision, a very difficult discussion, and you need to have it now,” Vance said.

The education fund, which pays for 80% to 90% of the district’s expenses, “is dwindling, not because of spending, but because the cost of salaries and benefits is going up every year, and what we bring in from local property taxes, state aid and federal aid just doesn’t keep up,” he said.

In regard to the maintenance fund, of the district’s four buildings, the newest is nearly 30 years old, the other three are older than 50, and maintenance costs are nowhere near covered by the $55,000 to $60,000 per year from the tax levy, he said.

“Your reserves are gone, you have to change something,” Vance said. “Unfortunately, in a school district, the easiest and most effective, but the hardest way, to cut expenses is people and programs.”

Vance is working on three budget scenarios that would show how cuts could be made at various levels: one for $102,000, another for $600,000 and a third that would cut up to $1.1 million. Those cuts could include a reduction in force or reducing workers’ hours from full to part time.

He said he will come back to the board with specific recommendations.

At the same time the district is dealing with covering those costs, it has a bundle of money that can be used only to pay for large projects. Case in point is $1.3 million in funding from the county sales tax, which must be used for facility upgrades. Other revenue streams include $2.6 million in bonds sold in 2023, and a $50,000 maintenance grant.

All told, the district had more than $2.24 million in the bank as of Monday, March 18, to pay for capital projects, Vance said.

The board is prioritizing projects that could be covered by those funds, such as remodeling the junior high bathrooms, fixing the sign at the junior high, installing new lockers at Southside Elementary School, upgrading lockers at the high school and the junior high, a new high school scoreboard and video boards, and upgrading the Northside Elementary School gym and bathrooms.

School Board President Erin Luckey at one point explained that the board doesn’t have one lump sum of money to pay all district expenses, and that each fund has a designated use and cannot be used for other needs.

“So when you are buying new bleachers at the football stadium, that’s not money that we can use for teachers’ salaries,” Luckey said. “And I think sometimes that is confusing, that we have certain funds in which we can spend out of and can move money around in. So when we have things like our bond payments, when we have our 1% sales tax that can only be used for permanent structures, we can’t use that to pay salaries out of.”

“So while we’re getting $1.3 million [in sales tax funds] from the county, it’s not something we can use to fund a program that way,” she said. “So we’re kind of trying to look at, with us spending money on new doors, it doesn’t mean we’re cutting the pre-K program.”

Luckey also said that the state provides the district with money that must used for leasing equipment, such as computers, copiers, vehicles, and even the building where school board meetings are held. It can’t be used for other purposes, she said.

District’s Preschool For All program costs escalating

Vance also addressed the district’s Preschool For All program, which provides free preschool, transportation and snacks to at-risk or pre-special-education students or students who have an individualized education plan. Anywhere from 40 to 50 students are enrolled annually in Morrison, which has morning and afternoon sessions. Any student can be screened for the program, and an assessment determines which students qualify to attend.

The district receives a state grant to help pay for the program, which was not created to be self-sufficient, Vance said. This year, the district is paying an estimated $331,393 for the program’s salaries, benefits, insurance and transportation costs; the state grant brings in only $133,000, he said.

“The district is spending $197,000 out of the education fund with no additional revenue coming in,” he said, adding that the costs of the program next year will come in at an estimated $372,000 for those same expenditures, with the district’s share expected to be $240,000.

“I don’t think anyone on the board is saying that preschool is not important,” Vance said. “But a serious discussion is going to have to take place amongst the board of education and the new superintendent about feasibility of long-term viability of $240,000 for a program that doesn’t bring in any revenue whatsoever.

“The state is very specific on what you can and cannot do,” Vance said.

In other action

  • The board approved a motion not to renew a probationary teacher’s contract. Board members Terri Wilkens, Dan Engelkens, Scott Folkers, Matt Ewoldsen and Luckey voted to not renew the contract and Jim Prombo voted present. Board member Dustin Damhoff was not present. The teacher was not named and no board discussion took place.
  • The board learned that 73 students were screened for kindergarten for the upcoming school year. If all 73 are enrolled at the start of the school year, the class will be the largest at Northside Elementary, which houses K-2 students, and the second-largest class from kindergarten through fifth grade.
  • The board also learned that 197 adults attended a recent Grandparents and VIP lunch at Southside Elementary, which received $4,200 in free books from the book fair, and that the seventh grade and eighth grade Quiz Bowl teams are conference champions this season; the eighth grade team was undefeated.
  • The board approved hiring Brianne Hayenga as a one-on-one aide at Northside and Bob Stone as freshmen/sophomore baseball coach at Morrison High School. The board accepted the resignation of Jennifer Streets as MHS guidance counselor, effective June 1.
  • The board approved 4-2 a $626,000 bid for high school track upgrades, which was in line with what members wanted to budget for the project.
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Charlene Bielema

Charlene Bielema

Charlene Bielema is the editor of Sauk Valley Media.