Harvey County Now takes a closer look at USD-373’s financial strains

By Blake Spurney

Harvey County Now Staff

NEWTON—USD-373 Finance Director David Decker explained the financial strain Newton and many other districts across the state were facing due to declining enrollment brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Decker received board approval March 14 to publish a notice informing the public that the district might raise its local-option budget percentage from 31 to 33 percent during the 2022-23 fiscal year. If the board chooses to increase the millage rate by increasing its LOB percentage to the maximum allowable percentage under state law, it would be joining about two-thirds of districts in the state, according to the Kansas State Department of Education. Even then, the district could still be looking at a deficit of $500,000, based on the current economic strains.

I would say there’s a lot of moving parts to predict what kind of hole that we’re trying to get out of this coming year,” he said.

Decker said even a wealthy district like Lawrence was facing a $6 million deficit. He said declining enrollment was just one of several factors put on the squeeze on school districts. Newton’s enrollment has declined by about 220 students as some families have opted for online learning or homeschooling. Other major expenses affecting the district are skyrocketing insurance and fuel costs. He said world markets were reacting to uncertainty brought about by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Fuel costs have increased 30 percent in just the past month.

All those are new things that come to the table that can cause anxiety and strain on resources,” he said.

Therefore, the district is looking at austerity measures to close the fiscal gap in the coming months. Decker said natural attrition through employees retiring or getting jobs elsewhere would save the district money on its biggest expense, which is personnel.

We’re being very deliberate on which positions we fill and when we fill them,” he said.

Decker said the district was looking at cutting $1 million in austerity measures if the LOB percentage didn’t increase to 33 percent. With more than 220 fewer students, he said the district wouldn’t need as many resources.

We don’t think it’s going to affect student outcomes,” he said. “We don’t think it’s going to affect the quality of education.”

Decker said one thing that made decisions about what positions to continue staffing was that the decline in enrollment was spread out across all grade levels. He said he thought students would return to the classroom once the pandemic started to settle down. He said he didn’t know if every former student would return to the classroom, but he expressed optimism that the district would begin to see steady, if not incremental, growth.

We’re going to take a conservative approach and cut expenses due to uncertainty,” he said.

Decker said the district was looking at ways to encourage students to return to the classroom.

We know that student learning is best in the classroom in face-to-face environments,” he said. “We do think parents and students will see the outcomes are better in person than remotely. Our fear is students will fall further and further behind.”

Decker proposed a budget for 2022-23 that would give current employees a modest raise costing about $540,000. He said it had become more difficult to recruit and retain quality personnel.

So we’re also trying to take small, incremental chunks to address that,” he said.

Decker said it was more expensive to recruit employees to address turnover than to retain them through increases in salaries and benefits. He said Newton was in the lower to middle end of the market in the region. He said the goal was to remain in the middle so that the district didn’t have constant turnover.

That’s what’s kind of tough about it is people can commute within a 30-minute drive of several school districts, so we do have to be aware of our market,” he said.

Decker said the district had other financial needs, such as infrastructure improvements. He said none of the infrastructure issues were something the district couldn’t currently handle. The district still has all its Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief III funding provided by the federal government. He said the district had been reserved on its use of the funding so that it could respond, if necessary, to another COVID-19 variant.

We don’t want to be caught holding the bag if the pandemic takes a turn for the worse, because it could,” he said.

0 replies on “Harvey County Now takes a closer look at USD-373’s financial strains”