Meridian schools draining reserves

Idaho's largest district faces potential cuts in 2014-15.

broberts@idahostatesman.comJune 28, 2013 

Tucked into pages of numbers outlining the Meridian School District's $178.7 million school budget for next year is a worrisome stat: Its reserve fund could be wiped out soon.

If financial conditions don't change, the district could be looking at starting the 2014-15 school calendar with fewer teachers and staffers in order to balance the budget.

In recent years, Meridian siphoned off its reserve - it once had $18 million - to keep the district running as close to normal as it could while lawmakers cut education support amid the recession. Even at that, Meridian had to cut 14 days out of the school calendar (it has added back nine days of classroom time).

The school board's approved budget for next year shrinks the reserve fund to about $1.6 million.

Unlike Boise School District, Meridian doesn't have a property tax levy that automatically draws dollars into the school's general fund as property values rise.

Without more help from the state, taxpayers voting for more school money or growth in the form of more students - which generates more state revenue - the Meridian district would blow through that $1.6 million reserve and more in 2014-15.

That leaves Meridian schools with a series of unpopular choices. With about 90 percent of its budget tied up in people, the district could have to cut staff, reduce benefits or increase furlough days to even out the numbers.

So if the district knows the cliff is coming, why aren't administrators making preparations now to soften the blow?

"We've cut huge amounts," said Linda Clark, Meridian School District superintendent.

The district already is hiring 118 fewer teachers than the roughly 1,750 allotted by the state. Its administrator count is 18 below the state's allocation.

Meridian also is not putting money into content - materials such as textbooks and other learning programs.

Against this, the Meridian Education Association has asked for a 1.67 percent pay increase.

"We have not reached an agreement," Clark said.

And salary increases based on length of service - which were partially funded by the state for next year - will cost the district nearly $1 million out of its own pocket.

Moreover, the district's supplemental levy, which raises about $14 million, expires next year. School officials will have to decide whether to ask voters for another supplemental levy and whether to ask for an increase.

"It is very challenging," Clark said.

Bill Roberts: 377-6408, Twitter: @IDS_BillRoberts

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