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Mehlville board looks to cut fiscal 2004 budget by $1.6 million

The Mehlville Board of Education is preparing to tighten the school district's operating budget with a belt that is running out of notches.

Administrators have assembled a plan for the Board of Education to consider that aims to reduce the fiscal 2004 budget by $1.6 million and increase end-of-the-year balances by 2 percent.

If no reductions are taken, according to district documents, the district could risk having an ending balance of less than 3 percent this year, which would mean it would become a financially distressed district.

That $1.6 million reduction is a lofty goal, Assistant Superintendent of Finance Randy Charles told the Call, one that he does not believe will be met.

Slightly more than 90 percent of the district's $97 million budget is untouchable, Charles said, regarding cuts that can take place with the current budget.

About 70 percent of this year's budget is comprised of salaries and benefits. Another 10 percent goes toward debt-service payments and a little more than 10 percent pays for district utilities and other fixed costs, such as gasoline for district buses.

That leaves about $7 million, Charles said, that can even be looked at for cost-trimming, keeping in mind that half of the academic year is over.

"When you start talking about reducing $1.6 million out of $7 million this far in the school year, it's very very difficult to do," he said.

However, the district still will try to make $1.6 million in cuts — an "aggressive" goal, according to Charles.

A Budget Expenditure Reduction Plan itemizing an administrator-recommended strategy was scheduled to be presented to board members Tuesday night — after the Call went to press — but administrators do not plan on recommending a reduction proposal for board consideration until a later meeting.

Some of the proposed budget reduction strategies include:

• Requiring that all reimbursements be pre-approved.

• Prohibiting deficit spending in any district account.

• Eliminating all national travel, effective immediately. In-state travel would be restricted to Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and other association meetings with prior approval.

• Paying overtime hours only with pre-approval from Charles.

• Terminating spending on textbooks for the remainder of fiscal 2004 and potentially fiscal 2005.

• Freezing all new hiring for fiscal 2004. Any vacancies would be evaluated to determine if a replacement is necessary.

• Discontinuing all food and beverages for meetings.

No core student services, Superintendent Tim Ricker told the Call, would be cut.

"This is not healthy for our organization," Ricker said. "We don't want to do it. This isn't something that we want to do or plan to do. But it's something that we have to do because of our obligation to our public ... and we still have to educate kids. So, we're going to do it by living within our means and tightening our belt first."

The difficulty in trimming the district's budget, he added, significantly is increased because it already is "lean." Mehlville already is a bare-bones operation, he said, and just doesn't have the extra programs or staff members that other districts do.

Administrators in each department and building also will be asked to review their respective budgets, line item by line item, to determine any additional cuts they can make.

Many of the cuts, he said, do not directly affect students, but they affect the overall morale and "climate" of the district in a negative way. To avoid the state's financially distressed list, however, cuts to the current fiscal year's budget will be necessary to stay above a 3-percent-end-of-the-year balance, he said.

Officials soon will be making some significant decisions for next year's budget, involving staff. By April 15, officials have to formulate a staffing pattern for fiscal 2005, which Ricker knows will be less than the current school year.

Ricker plans on directing staffing for the district according to Missouri School Improvement Program minimum standards.

"We're going to do administration first," he said. "... You're going to see a plan for administration that is less than what we had prior."

After any administrative cuts are assessed, quasi-administrative staff will be analyzed and then teachers will be looked at for any cuts that can be made — but in that order, Ricker said.

With the third-lowest per-pupil expenditure in the county, which was $6,533.49 per student in 2003, undetermined state budget cuts to education and the current education funding formula being battled out in court, district officials have to prepare for the worst.

One message is clear for district employees, however, Ricker said.

"They're going to have to find ways to do business differently administratively and in the teaching ranks," he said.

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