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Francis Howell may trim $1.3 million more from budget

Francis Howell

After voters said no last month to a 60-cent tax levy increase, Francis Howell school officials are looking at what can be cut next, to the tune of $1.3 million.

Possibilities include cutting bus transportation for students who live up to 3.5 miles from their schools and converting to a four-day school week but neither of those options would go into effect until the 2018-2019 school year and they would both require additional study and investigation, according to school officials. Officials also said approximately 10,400 students would be affected by the bus changes. The district now has a total of about 18,000 students.

“As a new superintendent, one of my primary goals is to engage our community and solicit their feedback,” said Superintendent Dr. Mary Hendricks-Harris this past summer. “A survey of stakeholders conducted last year showed that an amazing 99 percent of respondents said that it was important or very important that Francis Howell continues to be the highest achieving school district in the county. We will need additional resources if our district and our students are to continue performing at the highest level.”

While some parents would object to the transportation changes, they would save the district money, savings magnified by switching to a four-day school week. However, the district is in the initial stage of creating “walk zones,” to give some of its schools more ‘walkability’ before snipping bus service.

“Some of our schools are in more rural areas that are not as pedestrian-friendly while there are others in places more conducive to walk to school,” said Chief Communications Officer Matt Deichmann. He added that there are other barriers, such as Hwy. 364, that no one wants students crossing to get to or from school.

Other possible changes to the help the budget include charging high school students who participate in extra-curricular activities, slashing high school extra-curricular programs, reducing security staff members, less teacher training and fewer test materials.

For the second time in two years, district voters declined to approve a tax levy, which district officials said was needed to prevent additional cuts in addition to the slightly more than $12 million that has already been pared out in the previous two years. The proposition would have permitted the district to maintain class sizes, restore tutoring, increase technology, improve safety and attract and retain quality teachers.

“The Board of Education strives to be good stewards of our public dollars,” said Board President Mark Lafata in July. “We have voluntarily reduced the tax rate in seven different years since 2004, saving district taxpayers over $30 million. Additionally, the district’s 20-cent special purpose levy expired three years ago, reducing the district’s revenue by $4 million annually.”

A large concern is what these cuts will do to the district’s Missouri Annual Performance Rating [APR] score, which is currently 99.3 percent.

To mitigate that worry, Deichmann said like any reputable school district, Francis Howell is trying to ensure the cuts impact students as little as possible, so it is targeting transportation, the district’s second-largest expense, and extra-curricular programs, which have indirect student impacts.

Deichmann said that staff have become accustomed to a certain level of student achievement and staff members are concerned that any continued cuts will mean the district can no longer provide that tier of achievement. The cuts also have the potential to negatively impact employee morale, he added.

One thing the district now avoids is pruning staff. Since 2008, the district has cut 190 positions, 90 of them in the past two years. All staff members, including administrators, are under a salary freeze this year.

He said the school board directed administration to enact a status quo staffing plan for 2017-2018. Besides any retirements and resignations, other staff members may be reassigned but following the plan’s name, the district will not add any full-time openings next year. However, Deichmann was quick to point out that the district earned the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Top Workplaces Award this year for the fourth consecutive year.

In August 2015, the district sought a 90-cent tax levy from voters, citing it was just the second time in 25 years that the school board asked district voters for an operating increase.

While the school board meets tonight [Dec. 15] and may discuss the budget and related cuts, no vote is expected. The school board expects to vote on the district’s status quo staffing plan in January and on next year’s budget in June.

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