School cuts prompt dissent

Upset with lawmakers who cut state funding for public schools, the Sioux Falls School Board president voted Monday against formal adoption of the district’s 2012 budget.

Kent Alberty said he is not satisfied with the 6.6 percent per-student cut that the Legislature and Gov. Dennis Daugaard handed public schools in the spring. He hoped to send a message by deviating from what typically is a routine 5-0 vote.

“We are being forced to adopt a budget that I don’t believe is completely adequate,” Alberty said. “I can’t with clear conscience walk away from this table tonight thinking a unanimous vote was the appropriate thing.”

The state aid cut will cost the Sioux Falls district about $6.8 million next year. In response, the board raised its property tax freeze opt-out by $2.5 million and reduced its general fund budget from $130 million to $125 million.

Budget cuts included 3 percent pay cuts for administrators and the elimination of a handful of administrative jobs, as well as teacher pay cuts averaging 2.05 percent and the overhaul of an elementary reading program.

Board member Darin Daby said the board and budget committees struck a good balance between reducing spending and raising local revenue.

“I think we did the best we possibly could at minimizing the effect on students,” he said.

In his first board meeting back after one year away, Doug Morrison said the community expected them to make some spending cuts. Still, the new $7.5 million opt-out is evidence that the district is underfunded by at least $7.5 million, he said.

“We can’t lose sight of that message,” Morrison said.

During the discussion, board member Kate Parker called for revisions to the budget planning process. Only two of the five elected board members participate on the budget review committee, so the other three learn the details at the same time as the public.

In April, when the board adopted the budget for the first time, Parker criticized cuts to the Reading Recovery program. She finally voted in favor of the overall plan that night but complained that the tight timeline left her feeling powerless to change what the committee had recommended.

Parker offered no specific changes to the process Monday but asked that the administration engage the full board sooner when dramatic changes are being considered.

“When we are looking at big cuts like that, (we should) involve the rest of the board members that don’t sit on the budget review committee so it’s not so shocking,” she said.

Morrison and Daby defended the process, which takes place over several months and draws on recommendations from educators and a group of financial experts outside of education. Morrison said the system is preferable to a “town hall meeting down at the gym. … That’s not the way we operate.”

Alberty said it wouldn’t hurt to take another look at how the board budgets.

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