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Lack of details spark doubt at West Bonner budget meeting

by DARREN SVAN / Idaho Education News
| July 14, 2023 1:00 AM

PRIEST RIVER — A lack of details with West Bonner’s 2023-24 budget frustrated many parents and educators at Wednesday night’s meeting.

But constituents left with a promise and a warning: sports programs will be partially funded, and to pay bills for the next year the district will have to dip deeply into its savings account.

Superintendent Branden Durst and trustees talked in-depth about their summary budget posted on the district’s website — which they called temporary — but specifics were scant. Trustees unanimously approved that $9.6 million budget.

A summary budget is non-specific. The complete budget includes spending codes that show how every dollar will be allocated in the coming year, a document the board did not share or discuss Wednesday.

However, constituents pressed them to explain how the money will be spent.

Sandra Brower said, “I would like to know the changes … You had public comment last time during the budget hearing and there are people here that actually said that they didn’t understand what was happening with our budget, yet there’s no explanation with the changes.”

Katie Elsaesser asked, “Is all we have a summary statement? I know that trustee Rutledge and trustee Brown did not agree with the previous budget — they said there were things missing and information missing — but I feel like we’ve gotten less information.”

Durst explained, “The only number that’s different on this proposed budget than the prior budget … is on the salaries line.”

The difference between the first proposed budget on June 22 and the second on July 7 is a salary reduction of $276,763. While all other line items remain unchanged, as Durst stated, there is one other difference: a $332,115 amount dedicated to contingency reserve in the new budget.

The budget publicized this month is one page and includes the following expenditure line items: salaries, benefits, purchasing services, supplies, insurance, transfers and contingency reserves. Those seven items account for $9.6 million worth of spending.

“I am just here to tell you that you go with your original budget with the emphasis on salaries,” said Whitney Urmann. “Our teachers are paid less than any other district in 100 miles. I can tell you that as a first-year teacher in this district, and there is nowhere to live, some of our teachers are driving 100-plus miles.”

Urmann asked Durst to provide clarification for funding extracurricular and cocurricular activities, because “quite frankly, we don’t have a lot of good faith with you right now.”

This budget, Durst said, provides “some funding” for those programs. “The total amount of that hasn’t been determined yet because that is obviously a moving target at this point. But I think there is certainly a commitment from my office and from the trustees … to make sure … this budget allows for that.”

A parent of four children attending West Bonner schools, Morgan Strange said, “Our students need these extracurricular and cocurricular activities to stay motivated in school, to keep them out of drugs and alcohol, and to give them a reason to stay in school — to get good grades and just strive for academic excellence.”

Durst provided specifics. The district will pay for about 75% of the previous year’s costs, a number that could change because of issues like transportation and liability insurance, he said.

Durst did not respond to EdNews’ request for additional information.

“I think we could say pretty confidently that about three quarters of our cost … we will have the ability to pay for,” he said.

Elsaesser said, “I feel like you’re not putting the good faith effort out there to be transparent when all we get is one page. I am concerned with not going with the previous budget because everyone’s stating this is just temporary so we can pay bills, we will amend it. If that’s the case, why not go with the one that had hours and hours put into it, as opposed to the one that had someone who just started the job as a first-time-ever superintendent come up, within a week of being employed?”

Trustee Margaret Hall’s analysis seemed to undermine Durst’s assurances. She pointed to a $280,000 deficit for those athletic and in-school programs, if expenses remain the same as 2022-23.

Durst did not directly address the $280,000 Hall referenced.

“We either pay our teachers a non-competitive amount for salary or cocurricular, so you’re making us choose between our teachers or cocurricular?” trustee Carlyn Barton asked.

“We have to be cognizant of the fact that we would likely end up in a financial emergency by March or April, if we proceed in a way that’s not financially sustainable,” Durst said.

To cover 2023-24 expenses, the district will pull from its general fund balance — a kind of savings account — to cover shortfalls. An auditor looks at each school’s financial records every year and calculates what hasn’t been spent. At the end of 2022, West Bonner held about $2.9 million in its fund balance.

“We’re spending our savings account to keep things afloat. And from a fiscal standpoint, to me that’s not ideal to have ongoing costs paid for by a one-time revenue source,” Durst said.

Board chair Keith Rutledge said, ”I fully support his plans for getting the district back on the right track with its finances.”

Urmann concluded, “This change of tune is really frustrating. Our teachers deserve it and our kids deserve it.”

  • The board’s July 19 meeting was moved to July 26 at 6 p.m. in the high school cafeteria.
  • West Bonner scheduled a negotiations meeting for today at 5 p.m. Check the district’s website for changes or updates.
  • The board is currently seeking proposals for companies to conduct forensic auditing services. Proposals must be submitted by July 21.