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Ashland School District divided on spending

When the Ashland School District budget committee opened its first meeting of the school year Monday night, education leaders expressed optimism about the upcoming budget process.

"We're going to be in better shape this year than we have been in a long time," said Superintendent Juli Di Chiro.

The upcoming budget will be aided by anticipated increases from the Youth Activities and Academics Levy voters passed earlier this month, she said, and state funding is expected to continue at about the same level. However, the increased levy revenue led to questions about how the money will be spent, who gets to decide, and how much should be saved for future shortages.

Although the district cannot predict exactly how much money they will collect under the new levy, leaders estimate they will collect $2.9 million, about $500,000 more than the previous levy brought in.

"We actually can do some good planning this year instead of just cutting," Di Chiro said. "I'm hoping we can develop a budget that truly adjusts for enrollment instead of making the cuts we've had to make in the last seven years."

Priorities differ

Some dispute arose about what to do with the expected surplus.

School board member Amy Patton said that activities as a whole should retain current funding levels, but she would like to see much of the extra money set aside in anticipation of future budget cuts due to declining enrollment.

"My concern is not that we preserve the exact amount of money each sport is receiving," she said. "I'm concerned about five or six years from now, making massive cuts because we didn't plan ahead."

Other budget committee members disagreed, saying voters were promised that the money would support academics in addition to the activities it already supports.

"I think it's setting a bad precedent for us to do things that way," said long-time committee member Rick Barth. "We did tell the voters that it's also going to fund academics."

Because district staff are most aware of student demand for various activities, Barth said they should retain discretion over how the funds are spent, instead of following a fixed amount for activities based on past funding.

"I think saying there should be some budget set aside for these activities is corrupting the budget process," he said.

Di Chiro said the staff would be conservative in the first year of budgeting, especially because of uncertainty over how much the new levy will actually yield. She later reminded the committee that although voters were promised that activities funded by the current levy would not be overly targeted for reduction, they would not be overly protected either.

The disagreement over who should decide where the additional funds are used caused some committee members to question how much authority they have over the budget.

"I think the board and administration does a very good job in developing the budget," said Bill Anderson, in his second year on the budget committee. "I'm not sure the members are involved in prioritizing."

Traditionally, the board has played an oversight role, although they do have the authority to send back a budget for revision.

Other funds and priorities

The district also received extra state funds for this year's budget that helped buffer losses due to declining enrollment, including a one-time award of $630,000 leftover from the last legislative biennium and a new school improvement fund of $590,000 that will continue for next year. These funds were used to support the extended day kindergarten program, reading coaches up to ninth grade, a five-year technology replacement plan and textbook adoptions. Some of the money also went into savings to meet the district goal of reserving 8 percent of the budget for the next year.

"We are running pretty much as expected," Di Chiro said. "We certainly should meet and exceed our 8 percent goal."

Staff writer can be reached at 482-3456 ext. 227 or . To post a comment on this story, go to .