Park City School District budget questioned
November 10, 2006
While a typical school board meeting might contain more board members than audience, more than 100 people crowded into the district meeting room to hear the Park City School Board discuss the shrinking "rainy-day fund." Unless significant cuts are made in the budget, the district could deplete the fund during the 2006-2007 school year.
An independent auditor began the meeting. Ray Bartholomew of the firm Squire & Company PC, detailed the income and expenditures of the school district budget, confirming that expenditures were accounted for. Although he found that the General Fund (including school personnel, supplies and services) expenditures were higher than the actual budget, he said that was "not uncommon," in school districts. He attributed the spending-down of the rainy-day fund to "a couple of surprises with the district health insurance."
Bartholomew recommended that the district maintain a rainy-day fund of approximately $5 million for the $35 million annual budget of the district, compared with the $800,000 projected for this year.
Many of those attending were teachers whose union is negotiating a new contract that has been in limbo since June of the last school year. Both the union and the school district agreed to wait until firmer numbers came in from the district audit.
Several teachers contacted The Park Record with concerns of either mismanagement of funds, misappropriation of funds, or concern over the lack of rainy-day funds despite tax revenues from $1.5 billion gain in Park City appraised real-estate values over the past year. These teachers were unwilling to go on record, not wanting to jeopardize good will during negotiations, they said.
School board member Vern Christensen said that the $600,000 of unexpected insurance costs that Bartholomew was speaking of was a result of switching insurance companies, rising premiums and an initial figure that was projected too low.
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District costs are rising rapidly, but school funding is stagnant, according to
Christensen. "Where has the spare money gone? Into employees pockets," Christensen said.
"Eighty-six percent of the General Fund goes to people-related issues.
Last year employee insurance costs alone came to $3.2 million," he said. "This year the projection is $3.7 million." According to Christensen, the district employs more than 700 people.
He said that despite a contract in limbo, teachers are still getting their yearly step-and-lane increases, automatic raises that are dependent on a teacher’s qualifications and number of years teaching.
Insurance costs are rising, and a bigger share of existing budget money is being set aside for teachers’ retirement, he said. Non-employee spending hikes include costs such as English Language Learner programs.
Eighty-five percent of Park City school funding comes from local property taxes, Christensen said.
He pointed out that the significant rise in Park City propetry value in the past two years resulted in no new revenue for the school district. As assessed values of homes rise, a voted-leeway adjustment is made so homeowners pay roughly the same amount of school taxes every year. The result, said Christensen, is little more state tax money directed to schools.
The only way the local district can increase revenues would be to ask Park City taxpayers to approve a property tax hike, which could result in several million dollars increase to the rainy-day fund.
With little additional funding coming into the district, the school board spent much of the rest of the meeting discussing ways to trim costs.
Ideas considered included looking at the step-and-lane cost of living increases, Insurance benefits, incentives for those who can cut costs without cutting service, raising the student-to-teacher ratio, all the way down to vending machine revenues from soft-drink contracts. Acting Superintendent Tom VanGorder plans to form a committee including members of the community to look into cutting costs. He also plans to establish an open forum via the Internet.
Christensen welcomes public involvement. "Come to the ‘Truth in Taxation’ meetings," he said. "Come to our board meetings."
The school board meeting on Nov. 21, will be an open forum for those wishing to address the board.