About 14 months ago, the Brainerd School District opened its financial records and budgetary information to a select group of community leaders, those with backgrounds in business, banking and finance.
The voluntary community budget committee has been meeting once a month since then, digging into financial figures and information to try to see if they can provide insight for district staff and school board members.
At a school board finance committee meeting Thursday, Mark Ronnei, a community budget committee member and general manager at Grand View Lodge, spoke about the committee. He asked board members for direction on how the budget committee can further help the district.
"This is a group made up of people who like numbers way more than normal people like looking at numbers," said Ronnei. "We're trying to take apart these numbers and give the school board and community a better picture."
Ronnei said it was clear to the committee early on that the district, like other school districts, doesn't have easy-to-understand financial documents that most people would understand. As a result, committee members worked with school staff to come up with graphs and charts that board members now use to see the bigger picture on school expenditures and revenues. Board members commended Ronnei and the committee for the new charts that they now are provided each month.
"We think it's critical to communicate our financial situation more clearly and more accurately frankly, so there are no more headlines that say 'Surprise,'" Ronnei said
Ronnei was referring to a Sept. 12, 2008, Dispatch story about how board members learned the district had nearly $2 million more in its unreserved fund balance than was projected as independent auditors were closing out the books.
"Let's make it transparent," said Ronnei. "We're in a very good position about who we have on staff helping us. We want to step up to the plate and do more heavy lifting if that's what you want us to do."
Board member Bob Nystrom, who served as a board liaison on the budget committee last year, said the committee volunteers are people who are dedicated to the district. He said those first few months were contentious but it's worked out well.
"The committee isn't asking to take power away from the board. They want to walk alongside of us and look at it with different eyes and make recommendations," said Nystrom.
Ronnei said the committee would like to dive into next year's budget and review it on a line-item basis so people can better understand variances in the budget and why they occur.
Ronnei was critical of the way school districts are funded.
"It's overly complicated and for you to try to focus on the mission of excellence in education while spending your time on finance is insane," said Ronnei. "My inclination is to sue the Department of Education because they're making your life impossible."
The finance committee recommended for board approval that the budget committee advise the board in matters of school finance.
The committee Thursday also reviewed the revenues and expenditures for 2008-09. Revenues, particularly those for special education, came in higher than projected and is up $430,000, said Superintendent Steve Razidlo. Expenditures so far are down about $354,000 from what had been budgeted, which means the district could have an additional $700,000 to $750,000 in its unreserved fund balance at the end of the fiscal year June 30.
The district had projected a $4.87 million unreserved fund balance at the end of the school year but that could change to about $5.62 million, said Razidlo.
There are several reasons why revenues have increased and expenditures have decreased and board members explored those figures Thursday. Razidlo said so far this year the district is down 27 percent in its substitute teaching expenditures, a savings of $163,000, compared to last year. He credited staff for the savings.
The district also has saved about $228,000 in severance payments since several teachers who are eligible to retire have decided not to. Razidlo said this may be attributed to the downturn in the economy and people decided to remain employed, rather than retire.
The district has been notified it will receive an additional $604,000 in Title 1 funds and $1.495 million in IDEA, Part B, funds as part of the federal stimulus package. But Razidlo said the district can't count on this money yet since some of those funds may be awarded directly to the state.
However, Razidlo said if the district does receive the funding, it is likely additional teaching staff will be hired on one-year temporary contracts to use those funds, which must be spent within 18 months or two fiscal years.
JODIE TWEED may be reached at email@example.com or 855-5858.
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