Iowa City School District Facing $3.6 Million in Cuts

By Gregg Hennigan, Reporter

IOWA CITY, Iowa – The Iowa City Community School District must cut $3.6 million from its budget, but officials say they can do that without having a significant effect on students.

The district will tackle the issue primarily by not filling open positions, Superintendent Stephen Murley said Wednesday.

Those moves will be targeted at classrooms with the lowest number of students. As a result, some of the smallest classes will get larger.

The school board has made reducing the number of large classes in the district a priority and last year approved what it calls "aspirational goals" for class sizes.

Board President Sally Hoelscher said she believes the administration's plan will let the district meet those goals and continue providing the best education possible to students.

"I think we will be able to do that and still bring expenses into check," she said.

The Iowa Department of Education says that if the Iowa City school district makes no changes, it will face a $1.36 million budget shortfall in the fiscal year that starts July 1.

The $3.6 million the district wants to save would put its unspent balance, which is like a savings account, in the positive. It would then gradually increase the unspent balance until it met the school board's policy of being at least 5 percent of the district's budget authority.

The district got into this position by adding staff at a faster rate than students as enrollment has increased, Murley said. That's been done to keep class sizes down, he said.

Also, the district has seen a decrease of $5.6 million in primarily federal funding the past four years.

The Iowa City school district is one of the fastest growing school systems in the state and has nearly 13,000 students this school year. A recent projection said it could add 3,100 more students by fall 2022.

Staffing levels over the past few years were not immediately available from the district.

The district's class-size guideline sets a goal of having no more than 24 students in kindergarten through second-grade classrooms, 28 students for grades three through six, 30 students for the junior high schools and 32 for the high schools.

The majority of classrooms are below those numbers, some well below. For example, there are 36 classes in kindergarten through second-grade with 18 or fewer students this school year. There are 129 high school classes with 20 or fewer students.

Bringing the smallest classes closer to the targets in the guideline would increase efficiency by reducing staffing needs, Murley said.

"We really want to compress the distribution so the range (between the smallest and the largest classes) isn't as great," he said.

The district has received notice from 47 certified staff who are retiring at the end of the school year, Murley said. There also could be vacancies created by people leaving their jobs. The district will not fill open positions when appropriate, although there will be some new hires, he said.

Murley said layoffs remain a possibility because vacancies may not occur in areas where the district can handle a reduction.

Personnel costs account for 81 percent of the district's $137.4 million general fund budget this year, which means staffing is the main way the district can make cuts, Murley said.

The district's budget projections are based on the 4 percent increase in state aid to public schools the Legislature has approved for next fiscal year, and 2 percent increases the four years after that.

District officials consider 2 percent a conservative estimate and hope state lawmakers provide more.

The school board is expected to vote on next year's budget in early April.
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