As tough as this year’s budgeting process has been for the Eldon R-I School District, last year’s financial situation was even tougher.

In fact, the district is in better shape financially this year because of hard decisions that were made last year.

As tough as this year’s budgeting process has been for the Eldon R-I School District, last year’s financial situation was even tougher.

In fact, the district is in better shape financially this year because of hard decisions that were made last year.

Those hard decisions last year included the elimination of a dozen full-time positions. Most of those jobs eliminated were teaching positions.

The reductions – along with other cuts – saved the district more than $640,000. The district’s total budget is $18 million.

With the closing of manufacturing company Fasco’s Eldon operations in 2007-2008 and the loss of 400 jobs, the school district has become the city’s biggest employer, with 316 employees. The district has approximately 1,900 students in grades kindergarten through 12th.

It’s not easy to eliminate someone’s job, but tough decisions had to be made for the school district’s overall financial integrity, said Superintendent Matt Davis.

“Nobody likes telling people your job is being eliminated,” said Davis, who is in his third year as superintendent. “But you have to look at every decision and say, can we justify this in the community? I ask myself, too, if this was my own personal checking account, would I be wanting to pay money to do this?”

Given the uncertain economic times, a conservative approach to budgeting has served the district well, said board president Chris Hart.

“We went into last year not knowing what was going to happen with the state, so we felt instead of having to be reactive this year, and on down the road, it would be better to be proactive,” Hart said. “So we did some things to ensure that no matter what happened with the state (funding), we would be in good and shape and be fiscally responsible.”

More tough decisions had to be made this budget go-round, but the severity of the cuts was minimized because of choices that were made last year.

One of this year’s decisions was to reduce the number of registered nurses employed by the district from four to two, and using licensed practical nurses, who will be paid hourly, to pick up the slack.

“Our district was paying for four RNs,” Davis said. “We had a registered nurse at each building. On average, they would make about $35,000, plus benefits. So, that’s probably a $45,000 position, with benefits.

“Not that we don’t think health and safety and what they were doing was quality work, but we just, when you look at it like a business and the school district trying to watch all your dollars and cents, we feel we can meet the needs of our students with one RN based at either South School or Upper Elementary and one based at either the high school or the middle school. Whichever one is not at the one building, the LPN will be at the other (school).”

The LPNs will be paid $12.50 an hour, plus benefits.

“That’s about a $34,000 savings, give or take, by not having two RNs,” Davis said. “It doesn’t seem like a huge amount, but those little pieces add up to a larger piece.”
Another piece of the budget that was changed was switching the part-time designation from 20 hours a week to 35 hours.

“Part of that goes into the cost of insurance that you have to pay,” Davis said. “Right now, our school district pays about $5,000 per employee for insurance per year. Before, it was, if you worked more than 20 hours, you received insurance. Now, we’re raising that threshold to 35 hours before you receive insurance.”

Current part-time employees, however, were grandfathered in.

“I believe if you were hired by the school district where you worked 25 hours and you got insurance, I’m not going to take that away,” Davis said. “I believe that’s a fair way to treat people.

“But if a person retires, resigns, leaves, the new person that we hire, we’re raising that threshold to 35 hours before you receive insurance. That’s what we did with our bus drivers last year. The current bus drivers all received insurance, but the new bus drivers (who are hired) do not.

“We had a turnover of three bus drivers (last year), because of retirement, so we saved $15,000, just on not paying the new bus drivers’ insurance,” Davis said. “Again, little things that, over time, you slowly start saving some money.”

The staff cuts, like eliminating the two RN positions, were made out of financial necessity, Davis said, not because of any issues with job performance.

“They were great employees,” Davis said. “It was just a dollars-and-cents decision. One of the nurses has already received a job somewhere else. You like to hear that. Does that make you feel better? Yes.”

The district has also raised the price of school lunches to help offset rising food costs.

“We spend $330,000 on food costs and they said to expect a 10 percent increase. Well, do I put that on the kids?” Davis said of the decision-making process. “Lunch (prices) went up, but it was small, like 10 cents. Each building is different. It’s not a terrible amount of money per kid. We raised our food prices a little bit, but that only generates $15,000. So, you just try to find ways to say, can we make our food more efficient, cheaper, whatever?

Another factor in the budget process, as always, is the amount of state funding the school district receives. At the level, too, decision-makers are facing tough financial decisions and less money to work with.

“They (the state Legislature) still have not decided; it’s still up for debate,” Davis said. “We are preparing conservatively. They’re supposed to give us 100 percent of our money, but we’re saying they’re going to give us 90 percent.”

Davis works closely with business manager Sarah Rader to keep track of all the variables that go into the district’s budget.

“Sarah does a great job,” Davis said. “She watches the numbers very closely.”
The school district’s fiscal year goes from July 1 to June 30.

“But we still don’t know for sure exactly the money we will get (from the state) on this year’s budget,” Davis said. “You have take all the different factors that go into it, like assessed valuation. We met with the county assessor a month ago and assessment is down 3 percent, so that’s less money we receive. We will be down 6 or 7 percent from the state side, so we’re 10 percent down on our revenue side.”

Still, the district is in better shape this year because of difficult decisions it made last year.

“We feel much better going into next year,” said school board president Hart. “Everything spiraled downhill last year so quickly (with the economy and state funding). That could happen again, like with gas prices. But we’re trying to take care of the teachers and do as much as we can to not cut programs for kids.”

That’s where the district’s financial conservatism has paid off.

“We’re definitely playing the side of, I don’t think the state (money) will be as high as what they want, so let’s go lower,” Davis said. “So, if they do withhold different money, then it’s not completely an unexpected hit.”

Finances and budgets aside, the true bottom line for the school district, Davis said, is ensuring its students receive the best possible education the district can afford.
“Our kids are doing well,” Davis said. “We made all those cuts and we’re still having success.

“There’s a reason you make those tough decisions,” he said.

Contact Weekly Standard Editor Jeff Burkhead at