By Larry Austin
The Grand Island Board of education adopted a budget of $58,114,136 for 2015-16 at its meeting Tuesday after whittling away at a proposed 2.26 percent tax increase.
After deadlocking 3-3 on a proposed budget that increased taxes 2 percent, the board voted 4-2 for one that sees a 1.75 percent increase.
The board split 3-3 on the first vote, with trustees Paul Krull, Donna Tomkins and Lisa Pyc voting "no" and Glenn Bobeck, Karen Carroll and Sue Marston voting "yes."
After hearing a budget presentation by Robert McDow, assistant superintendent for school business and finance, that recommended an increase of 2.26 percent, Bobeck had moved the board approve a budget of "with a re-allocation of the use of the reserves such that we have an increase of tax equal to 2 percent."
The use of reserves was against McDow's recommendation. McDow said his goal, with $14.5 million in reserves presently, was to not spend down that sum, "because it would put us in a financial place that would be very uncomfortable for not only our district, but for our board and for our superintendent to run the type of program she's looking to run here at Grand Island."
McDow said state aid will increase $1.4 million and suggested setting aside $675,000 for "reserve relief." At a March budget presentation, before state aid estimates were more clearly defined, McDow called for allocating $4.9 million from reserves, and suggested reducing that number to $4,225,000 and "spending less of our savings."
McDow said the budget increases 4.12 percent. The budget vote will take place Tuesday, May 19. A budget hearing and board meeting will take place Monday, May 11.
The board funded 19 recommendations for additional spending from the previous budget. Dr. Teresa Lawrence said the recommendation for instructional program included a general education teacher at Sidway Elementary and (bumping a kindergarten teacher to first grade), a general teacher at Kaegebein Elementary in third grade "where we have our highest numbers right now." Lawrence said, with a special education teacher assistant at Sidway, an elementary general education teacher at Kaegebein, an elementary general education teacher at Sidway, a music teacher in the high school, and a shared speech teacher at Sidway and Kaegebein, Sidway class sizes would stand at 22 students per teacher.
Those recommendations would cost a total of $400,000.
The board had heard from members of the public advocating for the music teacher position and for reducing elementary school class sizes.
Tomkins questioned the cost of the music teacher at $70,000. She said last year when the board adopted the budget, it chose not to fill an opening in the music department that came about due to a retirement. The board later received a state grant to fill the position.
"The day before we went up for a public vote, the district received a grant that funded the music teacher," Tomkins said. "So there is no way that music teacher $70,000 is in a rollover budget from last year."
Trustee Bobeck said the question is does the board want to continue to fund the music position or not. "It doesn't matter how it was paid for in the past," he said.
Trustees Pyc and Carroll agreed, with Carroll telling Tomkins, "I struggled with exactly what you're saying."
Bobeck said the budget McDow offered "is an opportunity to add to our staffing to the extent that we deem it to be necessary - it's basically a class size thing on many levels - and to keep the services that we've had in the past."
"Are you suggesting that we cut a music position?" Bobeck asked Tomkins. Tomkins said, "I'm just saying we didn't have that position in the budget last year and we said we were going to have this same problem as soon as that grant was accepted. We did not fill that position last year and we said, 'watch, now this is going to throw everything off next year.' "
"Are you suggesting that we cut a music position?" Bobeck asked again.
"I'm saying we don't need that position," Tomkins said. She said later that class sizes in the department amounted to "giving private lessons to these kids."
Pyc said she had a problem with "how we said to the community someone retired and we're going to be OK. Someone is going to step up." Pyc said the grant was received and welcomed, but the board needs to be consistent with its recommendations to the community. Krull said it's nice the district will receive more state aid, but there are families struggling to pay their bills, and the 19 additional line item costs were too many.
"It's still going to hurt the people that are struggling," he said.
He agreed McDow was making "a very smart move to reduce the need of our reserve accounts."
Krull said the past two years in the budget process, the board "started our budget process at the tax cap, we stayed at the tax cap"