Righting D91’s budget ship: District seeks online input on $4M in cuts - East Idaho News
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Righting D91’s budget ship: District seeks online input on $4M in cuts

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IDAHO FALLS — Idaho Falls School District 91 is tackling its budget head-on after two years of $4 million deficits caused it to dip into its reserves fund. In a concerted effort to receive feedback on potential cuts from teachers, staff, parents and patrons at all levels, this week the district launched a survey on “Thought Exchange,” a digital platform that accumulates user responses. Anyone can provide and rate insights from other contributors.

“We were overspending by $4 million beyond what we were receiving,” Superintendent Karla LaOrange said.

Survey respondents will answer a simple question: “What should the District 91 board of trustees consider when making budget reductions?”

You can answer that question here.

RELATED | District 91 seeks community input to help resolve $4M deficit

“The exercise allows individuals to see different perspectives,” LaOrange said. “I think when we only see it through our own lens, we may not understand why something is important to someone else. I think it’s important to hear all of those things so we can make better decisions. We make better decisions working together.”

Currently, the reserve fund holds $11.5 million, according to Idaho Falls School District 91 Business Manager Lanell Farmer, who was also hired this year.

In a district audit, spending was “over budget in 10 categories” in fiscal year 2023.

LaOrange’s presentation identified each category:

  • “$1.29 million building care (utilities, custodial and supplies)
  • $1.11 million transportation (updated bus radio system, safety cameras and software)
  • $855,599 secondary instruction (curriculum licenses, software for students who need to make up credit for a class)
  • $710,711 maintenance (a fire system at Eagle Rock, new boiler and concrete at Skyline)
  • $579,643 elementary instruction (salaries and supplies)
  • $482,869 other support services (medical stipends paid to employees to cover their share of medical premiums — not continued this year beyond $50 a month in their paychecks)
  • $435,857 school administration (one-time payments in Nov. and Feb.)
  • $244,720 instructional technology (salaries and benefits)
  • $138,384 support, attendance, guidance and health
  • $107,336 on district administration (personnel, conferences, behavioral training, math training).”

LaOrange inherited the financial situation following her appointment in April of last year.

Part of that decline is due to declining attendance among students, along with Idaho’s return to the average daily attendance formula for school funding. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, district attendance averaged 95 to 98%, LaOrange said. Today it’s about 90 to 92%.

“We’re working on it, and principals and schools are doing great things to try to help our students come back to school,” she said.

But the funding decline ramifications have shaken up some teachers and staff members.

In a Jan. 10 email to all district staff, LaOrange wrote, “It has become apparent we are spending a lot more money than we receive from the state. It also has become clear that we are going to have to show more fiscal responsibility in the future and right size our budget.”

First the district acted by restructuring its administrative office — combining some jobs and eliminating others for a combined annual savings of $643,345, she said.

To aid in that effort, the district implemented an immediate “strategic hiring freeze” for new personnel in January.

District 91 also held stakeholder meetings in March. At the final session in Skyline High School, more than 70 people provided community feedback.

Participating groups also received lists with district, high school/middle school and elementary school programs and were asked to determine their top 10 programs that they would cut to improve district savings. The feedback from those sessions will be submitted to the Board of Trustees.

However, some elements of the district’s approach are stirring controversy between the Idaho Falls Education Administration — a union representing district employees — and district administrators.

“D91 has traditionally paid teachers and staff more than it receives from the state, and our supplemental levy has helped close that gap,” LaOrange wrote in her January message, “However, that discrepancy has grown larger and larger in recent years. That is not sustainable.”

Idaho Falls Education Association President Julie Nawrocki responded in an e-mail on Jan. 11, “The IFEA stands firmly against this statement. For the 2023-2024 school year, the district’s contribution to certificated salary (the only salary we can negotiate for) was 17.5% less than the 2022-2023 contribution to salary. This was mainly due to the influx of money ($6,359 per full-time employee) from the governor’s budget.

“That being said, the IFEA stands firmly against the statement that it is the discrepancy between salary apportionment from the state and the district’s salary schedule that would account for the $4 million loss as the district’s total contribution to our salaries was $3.2 million (the majority of which is supported by the supplemental levy and voted on by the public to support our salaries).”

But both parties support a collaborative approach that addresses the challenges ahead.

“We understand it will take a team effort to right the over-spent budget,” Nawrocki wrote. “We will work with the district, staff and patrons collaboratively to support a balanced budget that protects the needs of our students and the classroom unit and retains and attracts highly qualified educators and support staff.”

LaOrange agreed, thanking teachers, classified personnel and community members for participating.

“When we work together, we can approach and tackle difficult challenges,” LaOrange said.