You may have seen the headline in the Argus Leader today (October 11, 2017), which reads “SHORTED SALARIES,” with the story superimposed over a picture of our school. This headline, while intended to really grab the reader’s interest, seems to imply that our school district has somehow been less than above-board with respect to the use of funds provided in the 2016 legislative session. Beyond the headline, the content in the news story is accurate. We encourage people in the district to make sure that you read the entire article beyond the attention grabbing headlines and pictures to get the facts of the matter as it applies to the Garretson School District.
When the legislature passed the laws related to the funding increase, the law was written with two different mechanisms for accountability: one that required schools to increase the amount spent on teacher salaries and benefits by a certain percentage, and one that required districts to spend a certain amount of money, which was based on the State’s projected student enrollment numbers for each district. In our case, the District did meet the accountability requirement for the percentage of increase for teacher salaries and benefits, but did not meet the requirement for the “total amount” spent on teacher salaries and benefits.
The law allows schools to apply to the School Finance Accountability Board for a waiver of the accountability rules. This board then makes a recommendation to a committee of the legislature, who has the final decision. In the law, it states that the board shall consider five factors in determining their recommendation for a waiver of the rules. Those factors include fiscal impact due to: retirement, declining enrollment, changes in benefit expenditures such as changes in family status and health insurance, effects of unexpected resignations, and any unforeseen or extenuating circumstances affecting the school district’s ability to meet accountability targets as documented by the school district.
The Garretson School Board has discussed this issue at a number of board meetings, in open session. This subject and the letter we received were not a surprise to the administration or the members of the school board. We all knew clearly that we would not meet the accountability marker based on the pure dollars spent. Of the five factors that the School Finance Accountability Board is required to consider when recommending a waiver, the Garretson School District has experienced three of them. First, declining enrollment - the State projected that we would have 474 students in the 16-17 school year, and based our accountability numbers on that projection. We knew that our student count would be lower than that, and adjusted our budget accordingly. Second, retirements – we had experienced teachers retire, and hired less experienced teachers to replace them. This results in fewer dollars being spent on instruction. Third, unexpected teacher resignations – we had our full-time Spanish teacher resign and take a teaching position in another district. We used this as an opportunity to create a shared teaching position with the Baltic School District to reduce the cost to both districts.
At Monday night’s board meeting, we followed through with our earlier determination, and the Garretson School Board voted unanimously to apply for a waiver to the accountability rules. The decision was made based on careful consideration of the District’s financial situation and knowledge of the factors that the School Finance Accountability Board will consider in recommending that the rules be waived. We are confident that the decision is right for our district, and we look forward to being able to tell our District’s unique story to the Accountability Board. Thank you for your support of the Garretson School District and your willingness to read “the rest of the story.”